STEP UP FROM THE MISSTEP
Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia and her resulting September 11th stumble has the press fretting about her health, her campaign and her reputation for a lack of transparency. Taken together with other steps, however, the Clinton campaign must turn this political and literal misstep into an opportunity.
Here’s why: The Great Debate Expectations Game. Heading into the first presidential debate on Sept. 26th, Clinton must change any media expectation that she will trump Trump. It’s a forecast that even her own campaign has cultivated – witness a New York Times report that she hopes “to crush Mr. Trump on live television.”
True, there’s a chance that the Donald’s head will explode at the encounter, that he’ll defeat himself even more than Hillary will. According to the Times, that’s one reason she’s consulting “psychology experts” as she seeks ways of needling him and countering his attacks. That Times article might even be a pre-emptive strike on her part, intended to intimidate him.
CHANGE THE EXPECTATIONS
But the media and public, not Trump and his delicate psyche, must be the main targets for pre-debate maneuvering. There’s a thin, potentially overconfident line between Hillary’s hope to trample Trump and the expectation that she’ll do so. Under these circumstances, he could still win simply by not combusting during their encounter. You can imagine the pundits’ post-debate proclamations: “Trump kept his cool. He remained focused. He looked presidential!”
Unless Clinton changes what’s expected of Trump, then, it won’t matter much that he will likely lie, avoid policy nuance and be very vacuous. If the speculation going into the first debate, on Sept. 26th, is that Hillary might trounce him, all he’ll need do is throw a few crumbs of sobriety and substance the media’s way. Commentators could then declare him the winner.
THOSE WHO CANNOT REMEMBER THE PAST…
We’ve been down this road before. George W. Bush was similarly blessed by low expectations going into his 2000 debates with Al Gore. As one Election Day analysis put it that year, “No one took into account the possibility that if you set the bar real low for Bush, all he had to do was pronounce America properly and it would be a terrific thing. And that is in fact what happened.”
What’s more, a debate is not won when it takes place. In addition to setting expectations during the run-up, the rival campaigns’ spin over the course of the following days is crucial. Thus, the Bush team’s “relentless focus on Gore’s [debate] misstatements and sighing proved devastating to the then Vice-President” following the first 2000 debate.
BUILD TRUMP UP
Now, Clinton is in fact a good debater. She’s tenacious and focused. She knows her stuff.
But forget about crushing Trump, Hillary. Instead, build him up in the lead-up to Sept. 26th. Your team should repeatedly get the word out reminding everyone that Trump dominated the Republican primary debates. It should suggest that, given his success with the media this entire year, falling short of such dominance against you will be a failure for him.
Add that he must display knowledge, consistency, transparency (regarding which, he is far more flawed than you) and an absolute rejection of bigotry – surely not too high a standard for any normal candidate in any normal year. To hold him accountable before, during and after the encounter, make some of those standards specific: To pick a few potential examples, during the debate he should state that he will release his tax returns and records of his myriad foreign business deals that have national security implications, explicitly reject right-wing wackos such as David Duke and Alex Jones and apologize for his outrageous lies about Mexicans and Muslims.
ABOUT HILLARY’S HEALTH…
And don’t view your health situation as necessarily negative, Hillary. Of course, show that you’re feeling fine. But don’t go overboard to squelch silly speculation: “Might Hillary have trouble concentrating during the debate, making it through, even standing up?” Setting the bar low this way could favorably affect expectations. It also could help inoculate you, so to speak, against any occasional cough or momentary lapse.
Finally, in the post-encounter spin, your surrogates should pounce on any ways in which Trump fell far short of dominating the debate or upholding normal standards. They could point out how well you did despite falling ill: “She trounced him even while recovering from pneumonia!”
THE DEBATE BEGINS RIGHT NOW
In other words, while a good performance is important for you, Hillary, setting the bar high for Trump and lowering it for yourself is even more so. Your success on Sept. 26th is being set by the Great Debate Expectations Game right now.
Stephen Golub writes, teaches and consults on international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy and governance. His blog is A Promised Land: Politics, Policy and America as a Developing Country.