World, Politics

US 2016: Gloves On, Gloves Off for The Debate of the Century

By J Brooks Spector 26 September 2016

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will take place at Hofstra University on Monday night. J. BROOKS SPECTOR ponders the significance of it all.

With all the hype floating around about the upcoming presidential debate at 21:00 on 26 September at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the temptation to write about it as if it were a boxing match has become almost irresistible. Maybe we should just see it as something like the climactic fight in the original Rocky film between Rocky Balboa, “Italian Stallion”, and Apollo Creed, the “Master of Disaster”.

Some US-based journalists are already calling the Monday night event a match between a boxer and a fighter (or a brawler or bruiser). And no fun asking: Who’s who?Perhaps it is a shame this event is not taking place on a university campus inside New York City itself – and there are many that might have been a venue – but Hofstra apparently found sponsors to cover the costs, and they presumably hope for national exposure as a special student recruiting tool. If the debate were scheduled for the Big Apple, its nickname might be “Mayhem in Manhattan” or “Brawling in Brooklyn”, rather than a less mellifluous name that will come out of what is about to occur out there on Long Island on the Hofstra University campus.

In fact, things are nasty enough between the two candidates’ camps that the Clinton forces are threatening to invite Mark Cuban, a zillionaire former host of a reality TV show rival to Trump’s The Apprentice, while the Trump forces are smirking their way around the networks with counter-threats to bring Gennifer Flowers – the woman who reportedly had an extended affair with former President Clinton – to sit next to Cuban at ringside in the front row of the audience. Still, with a bit of a cinematic touch to the event as it unfolds, a broadcast from Monday night’s ringside could conceivably sound something like the following:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen! On tonight’s top tier match on our fight card will be a fight that is the first of what the two camps have already agreed will be a three-match series between ‘The Wonk’ and ‘The Mouth’. Ever the first to arrive at an event, Hillary ‘The Wonk’ Clinton is already in her corner, wearing her distinctive powder blue, Lycra, designer pants suit. But this time, rather than in a simple monotone, the design has been enlivened with a light splash of glitter to help both soften and brighten her usual appearance.

Meanwhile, while Clinton and her team of thousands of policy wonks, all identically wearing blue T-shirts with the logo, “We may be boring but we are totally sane and very predictable” – Donald ‘The Mouth’ Trump has just come up to the ring himself with his own entourage.

These folks are wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a special logo and slogan, ‘The Deplorables’. The boxer himself is wearing a flowing cape, mask, and tights, fashioned, it seems, in the manner of the outfit Bruce Wayne/Batman made famous as the ‘Caped Crusader’ in appearances on television, in films and in comic books. However, tonight, rather than his usual bright red, ‘The Mouth’s’ cape is in a nearly-eye-blinding crimson, flecked with – wait, it says here in my notes – a million one-carat diamonds, each designed to represent the amount of $5,000 he has in the bank, even before the take from this fight is distributed. From this distance, “The Mouth” looks a bit like what Marvel Comics would have done with Liberace as one of their superhero characters. (Did I just say that on air?)

Wait a minute, wait a minute, someone has just handed me a note that reads, ‘His costume was made in Russia in a sweat shop staffed by imprisoned journalists, and run by one of those oligarchs; although the diamonds on this cape were actually stitched on to the material in China because of the precision work that was needed.’ Folks, we’re going to have to check all this out later, very carefully, even if no one particularly cares much any more what ‘The Mouth’ says or does in the ring, or in public.

Nothing subtle there at all, though, in ‘The Mouth’s’ outfits, or, for that matter, with ‘The Wonk’s’ either! Folks, it’s going to be a great fight tonight. Now the referee is talking to both of them, and we can just barely hear him instruct the two fighters, “Now remember – no eye gouging, no biting, no punching below the belt, and no rabbit punches. Fact checking is allowed, but no screaming, shouting or obscene name calling, or accusing opponents or their fathers of being involved in political assassinations.’ Regardless of these rules being laid down by the referee, I can tell you that since there are some really bad feelings between these two pugilists already, there is going to be some real blood drawn tonight.”

Or something like that – or worse. Maybe there will even be wild animals paraded in the ring, and jugglers, jesters with little bells on their elf shoes, and the rest of the smarmy glitz that can occur in a world heavyweight circus like this one promises to be. Maybe Al Sharpton and Don King will even attend.

One thing is certain, given all the hype already, this debate will draw an audience heading into Superbowl viewership – with media analysts predicting somewhere close to a hundred million pairs of American eyes, for at least part of the broadcast. All 90 minutes of it will be televised without commercial interruption – although advertisers are already prepared to launch commercials just before and just after the debate that will play off the debate’s texture. As such, the ads will be watched almost as eagerly as commercials are during Superbowl broadcasts.

Well, maybe it won’t be quite this bizarre, but it has already gotten close to being out-of-hand, in the days before the actual bout, er, uhm, presidential debate. And by the time Lester Holt, the evening news presenter on NBC TV and something of a surprise moderator, takes the ref’s chair in that hall at Hofstra University, the hysteria over how this will play out – will Trump will explode in a fury of inchoate, incomprehensible non-sequitors, or will Hillary Clinton choke off any spontaneity or sense of incipient “mensch-ness” in a 90-minute drumbeat, a rat-ta-tat-tat of policy prescriptions, an unstoppable tsunami of facts – will have reached fever pitch, a boiling point, or any other cliché that can be filched from the words of sports writers like Howard Cosell, Ring Lardner or Damon Runyon.

Well, okay, then. Over the weekend, both candidates were prepping with their advisors and coaches, although there didn’t appear to be any of that punching of beef carcasses at the local abattoir, or running up and down the steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum. In Clinton’s camp, they were carrying out the usual run-throughs with a secret stand-in for their candidate’s opponent. There has been the final studying of briefing books and the honing down of catch phrases she hopes will give her a pathway to describe – cogently and convincingly – the key policies she is advocating.

Over at the Trump camp, meanwhile, word that has come out that the candidate has eschewed any formal run-throughs with a Clinton stand-in, choosing, instead, to try his approaches, batting them around a table with trusted aides, in an effort to avoid blunting his so-far-successful debate technique that has been a mix of bluster, sneering insult, sarcastic denigration, swaggering braggadocio and the occasional, plain vanilla, outright lie. In effect, the Trump campaign knows Clinton will be loaded with specifics on her plans and prepped to call him out over misstatements or worse on his part. How he parries that approach, therefore, will be key.

Late last week, in fact, Trump tried to recalibrate the event in advance, saying debate moderator Lester Holt should not try to fact-check the candidates at next week’s presidential debate (i.e. call out Trump for his misstatements or worse). Instead, he insisted it would be up to the two candidates to call out their rivals whenever they are wrong, saying on Fox News TV that the two rivals should “argue it out” themselves.

For her part, Clinton has to figure out – and respond to – one of two possible Donald Trumps who will be in front of her, once the show begins. Either he will come out the way he has before in the primary season debates, or he suddenly and unexpectedly will present himself as a sober-minded, plausible president and an adult with wide experience. If it is the latter, and she attacks him too hard, she runs the risk of coming across as a hectorer of historic proportions. If it is the former, however, in her attacks she risks becoming relentlessly negative, delivering her points against him, forgetting her own positions.

Elaine Kamarck, writing for the Brookings Institution think tank, as well as teaching public policy at Harvard, and someone with significant experience in the White House as a senior staffer, offered seven key points to consider for those participating in presidential debates. She argues, for starters, that while the debate itself will be important, “of equal if not greater importance will be the days that follow the debate: the fact-checking, the results of real time polling of focus groups, the spin from the candidates’ camps and the constant analysis from the chattering classes.”

Kamarck’s first rule is that the debaters must look good on camera. Harking back to the inevitable example of Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, she notes, “The first presidential debate of the television era was the 1960 debate between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. It is famous primarily for the fact that the intimate experience of television opened up a whole new element to debates—how people looked and how they came across to the viewers. Kennedy was young, handsome, made up for television and rested. Nixon, while also young, didn’t look it, appearing tired, sick, shifty-eyed and without make-up. The difference was dramatic. In a story that is now the stuff of legend, those who heard Nixon on radio thought he had won, those who watched on television thought Kennedy had won.”

If her first rule is derived from the 1960 debate, the second comes from the 1976 debate between Jimmy Carter and then-President Gerald Ford. Whatever a candidate does, they shouldn’t make mistakes that reinforce the negative narrative of a candidacy. After taking over once Nixon had resigned as a result of Watergate, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon did nothing to reinforce Ford’s popularity – and his two accidental stumbles on airplane steps gave the public impression of a clumsy, maladroit man. But it was his bizarre assertion (twice) in the televised debate, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” that played into the growing narrative of his presidency that he was an accidental man, physically and intellectually.

More complicated her third rule that if the narrative, going into the debate, is negative, try to use the debate to turn it around. As Kamarck explains, “But in the one and only debate prior to the 1980 election Ronald Reagan was as relaxed and amiable as Kennedy had been 20 years before — being an actor, he was comfortable with the camera. Whenever President Carter criticised him he responded with a smile and an avuncular, ‘There you go again.’ And when he looked into the camera and asked Americans, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ the election was over.” Reagan had overturned the electoral trajectory with his stagecraft and carefully crafted phrases.

That leads to the fourth point – that a clever line, well delivered, can get a candidate out of trouble. In 1984, Ronald Reagan faced a challenge to his re-election from former Vice President Walter Mondale. In the first debate, Reagan came across as tired and seriously attention-challenged. In the second, however, when pushed about his increasingly advanced age, as Kamarck noted, “Reagan delivered a line so flawless and spot-on that, for all practical purposes, it ended the election. ‘I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ The audience erupted in howls of laughter and even Walter Mondale had to laugh – before he cried. In spite of his clear confusion in other moments, this one-liner ruled the day.”

The fifth rule for presidential debaters is to always answer a question as a warm-blooded human first – and a policy wonk second. This time around, the challenge came at Democratic candidate Mike Dukakis in 1988 when, in response to growing national concerns about crime, questioner Bernard Shaw asked him, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [the candidate’s spouse] were raped and murdered, would you favour an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” While the question was rather shocking, it was Dukakis’ answer that really clobbered him. Almost bloodlessly, as Kamarck notes, “he moved right into a legal and policy defence of his opposition to the death penalty. The question, coupled with the cold-bloodedness of the answer, prompted the journalist Walter Shapiro to write, ‘The question was in ghoulish taste, but it proved revealing.’ ”

The next to last rule is that in these debates, empathy matters. A lot. In the 2000 debate, Democratic candidate Al Gore managed to go so much on the offensive – in contrast to a genial, albeit bumbling George W. Bush – that, “Thinking that the television cameras weren’t on him, he grimaced, shook his head and sighed in a combination of disgust and disagreement as Bush was talking. And in an effort to convey his commitment to keeping social security safe for the future he used the analogy of putting the trust fund into a ‘lockbox,’ a phrase he repeated probably once too often. The results were brutal. In spite of the fact that Gore had a more secure grasp of the issues than Bush, audiences reacted poorly to what seemed to be his overly aggressive stance. He was subjected to the merciless satire of Saturday Night Live, whose satire on his debate performance was shown to Gore to illustrate where he had gone wrong.”

That, of course, leads directly to Kamarck’s seventh rule: always assume there is a camera watching you. Always. No sighing to signal displeasure (Al Gore in 2000) or looking at your watch to – apparently – check the time to see how much of this torture remains (George HW Bush in 1992). Instead, expect that for the full hour and a half, at least one camera is on you relentlessly – recording the fatal faux pas that will be played and replayed endlessly on television news, on the internet and on social media – and, ultimately, on Saturday Night Live as well.

And as a final bit of advice, Kamarck adds that a candidate must use the debate “to create a ‘moment’ that will sink into the public consciousness. Ronald Reagan managed that in 1980 – moving a six-point race to a 10-point victory in just about a week. Included in the excessive care that now goes into prepping for these debates is the hope that maybe, just maybe, lightning might strike”. On Tuesday morning, very, very early and well fortified with some very strong coffee, this writer will be seated in front of his television to see who follows and who ignores all this advice – or who comes up with some new rules for debates. Will it be an intellectual debacle or an actual debate over real issues faced by the nation? We’ll let you know. DM

Photo:A marquee advertises the opportunity to watch the upcoming US presidential debate between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, at the American City Diner in Washington, DC, USA, 21 September 2016. The first of three presidential debates takes place on 26 September at New York’s Hofstra University. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

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