posted at 3:01 pm on September 21, 2016 by John Sexton
With national polls currently averaging out to a dead heat, there is a lot of attention being placed on the upcoming presidential debates. Yesterday, the Hill reported that as many as 100 million people could tune in to watch the first debate. That’s Super Bowl territory. So with all that is riding on those debates, Politico reports Democrats are eager to give Clinton advice on how to handle them:
When Clinton last visited with Senate Democrats in July, she remarked to the room that she has gotten more advice on debates than any other topic.
“Everybody in the room laughed, because most of us had given her advice on what to do,” recounted Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Politico asked several Democrats about their advice to Hillary on how to put in a good performance. And their advice seems to boil down to: Let Trump talk.
“He’s going to say some cockamamie stuff,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “Give him the rope.”
Indeed, the best strategy for Clinton, lawmakers advised, is to let Trump do most of the talking.
“Inevitably, he’s going to say enough dumb things to dominate the headlines,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “He’s gonna make mistakes; the question is, how big are the mistakes? And I’m certain there are things she can do that would cause his mistakes to be bigger.”
The idea behind this is that, given a chance, Trump will wander into a rhetorical mine field and the press can capitalize on whatever he says to attack him after the fact. They’re suggesting Hillary make a play to win the media.
I see a couple problems with that strategy. First, it’s basically the same playbook Clinton has been using for months. She sits back, avoiding the media as much as possible, and lets Trump suck up all the oxygen. The media finds fault with something he says on an almost daily basis and that becomes the news. Hillary’s camp then piles on whatever it is, feeding the media quotes denouncing Trump for whatever he has said. Rinse and repeat.
But Clinton has been doing this for months and the result, despite a massive spending advantage, is that she’s unable to close the deal. In fact, the polls have been shifting toward Trump for the last few weeks. Running the same playbook at the debates doesn’t seem guaranteed to produce any better results. I get why they think it should work but it clearly hasn’t worked as well as they expected it to.
And there’s another problem with this strategy. Part of running for President is looking presidential and, to most people, that means looking like a leader, not someone who sits back and waits for the other guy to fumble. If Clinton’s strategy is to let Trump lead the discussion (in hopes he’ll lead it into a dark alley) that still leaves Clinton following and, probably, getting less time to speak.
On some level the Clinton camp must recognize this is a bad idea. She wants to dispel all the concern about her health and stamina. She wants to show she can stand up to anyone on the world stage, but she can’t do that if she looks timid or reluctant to engage on the debate stage.
Sen. Harry Reid tells Politico, “She has to be unafraid.” As much as I genuinely dislike Reid (for his history of blatant and unrepentant lying about opponents like Mitt Romney), I think he’s on to something here. It would be better for Clinton to get a little too aggressive than for her to come off as “low T” in a public knife fight with Trump. She needs to show toughness as much as smarts and that means she needs to come out swinging.
As much as Democrats probably don’t want to think about it, an aggressive Hillary could make some mistakes as well. She has never been a great candidate. She really could blow this, even blow it in some spectacular way. That’s partly why 100 million people are going to tune in to see what happens.