My favorite movie, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, is mostly known for two scenes. In one, our protagonist, Maximus, unmasks himself to an astonished emperor who had ordered him dead. In the other, he thrills the crowd with his gladiatorial talents before frustratingly interrogating the audience, “Are you not entertained?! Is this not why you are here?!” With tonight’s town hall-style debate, when our presidential combatants will put on a show for an audience that surrounds them in the room and across the country, I can’t help but see similarities in the ancient blood sport and our current political clash. We are both disgusted and enthralled by this age-old struggle for power.
On the heels of the first presidential debate and Friday’s lewd leak, Donald Trump’s low bar for success has been lowered nearly to the ground. We pundits are trying to determine if the town hall format helps or hurts him. On the one hand, Trump is a successful schmoozer — some might call him a con-man — who excels at the seductive conversation. A town hall debate will allow him to work the audience in one-on-one situations, charming the country through the proxies in the room. On the other hand, Trump will be admonished if he loses his temper with, or blames his inadequacies on, audience members. He’s proven that slamming the liberal media is a foolproof rallying cry for Republican candidates; doing the same to innocent, undecided voters is not.
Let the record show that he once again swears he is not preparing for the debate. We know this because he told us so while doing a town hall in New Hampshire that, again, was definitely not preparation. In his words “Forget debate prep — give me a break.” True to form, the event, in which a pro-Trump moderator asked questions from a pro-Trump crowd, bears little resemblance to what he and Hillary Clinton will face tonight.
Helping Trump in advance of the debate is town hall extraordinaire and potential Stockholm Syndrome-candidate Chris Christie. Governor Christie was praised time and time again by this website for his town hall and debate skills during the Republican Primary. No candidate better pivoted responses to make them about the voters rather than the candidate. Trump, while he often says he’s running for the common man, hasn’t convinced anyone of this but his most ardent supporters. If anything could soften Trump’s image, it would be borrowing from Christie’s playbook in how to give those answers.
The bottom line for the Republican nominee is that he must stay focused on the task, which is to A) Repeatedly stick to the issues that make him popular: trade, illegal immigration, and a withdrawal from foreign intervention; B) Pivot to Clinton’s heavy baggage rather than count on the questions to do it for him; and C) Emphasize that he’s the candidate of change. This is, after all, a change election, but he needs to be a sane alternative to the known quantity. Therefore, he must avoid his trademark tangents and wandering responses, and he certainly needs to shout down his baser urges that implore him to bring up affairs and other personal attacks. (He warned us this week that he can be nasty. Yeah. We know.) That plays great to the supporters he already has, but swing voters want solutions, not tabloid headlines.
Clinton, meanwhile, has the same priorities from the first debate. She must remain calm when Trump cranks up the decibel levels. She also needs to channel her husband’s famed 1992 town hall performance, when he successfully contrasted himself with President George H.W. Bush by speaking directly to voters in language they could understand and with all the empathy he could muster. Among Hillary Clinton’s many weaknesses is her seeming lack of humanity; she’s seen as robotic and rehearsed, almost like she’s trying way too hard to pass the Turing test. (Another Ridley Scott film comes to mind.) She can escape a podium debate with such flaws, but a town hall debate is a different animal. We know she’s prepared with information and defenses of her dubious record, but can she replicate just the right amount of compassion in just the right moments?
Clinton also needs to be ready for a more aggressive Donald Trump. PPFA and others noted that Trump didn’t create his own chances at the first debate, eschewing the mention of controversial Clintonian topics like the Clinton Foundation and Benghazi in favor of having no plan whatsoever then blaming Lester Holt for it the next day. Trump has vowed to hit harder in the second debate, including getting personal. Such asymmetrical warfare provides magnificent popcorn television for us, but it surely gives fits to the Clinton debate team.
It’s worth noting that there’s a chance it’s already too late for Trump. Yesterday’s comments have caused a firestorm that the media would like us to believe is a breaking point. Moreover, swing voters might have made up their minds at the first debate and not need to see anymore. It’s almost assured that the second debate will not earn the record numbers of the first. The novelty is gone, first of all, but the middle day of a three-day weekend is not ideal. Plus, Giants-Packers doesn’t help. (It gains more national interest than Saints-Falcons did during the first debate.) We have to wonder if the first debate already cast the die onto the electoral playing board.
The most famous casting of the die, of course, was Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. With that decision, a civilization of coliseums and republican politics descended into civil war. You know, like today. It may be gross, and it may be shameless, but boy — am I entertained. Enjoy the debate!