The news media would like to cast the upcoming presidential debates as an Armageddon-like battle for the votes—and souls—of Americans, but objectively speaking, it will likely resemble a prize fight between Mohammad Ali at his peak and an out-of-shape, middle-aged couch potato who took one boxing lesson decades ago.
In this corner, we have an articulate, well-educated woman who has more experience in public service than anyone else ever to have run for the White House. She has well-defined, carefully detailed positions on every issue. She has proven to be an exceptionally competent debater in the past. She doesn’t get riled and thinks well on her feet. She has been subject to, and withstood with grace, more investigations than perhaps any other public figure in American history and yet has never been charged with a crime, censured by a Congressional committee or accused of a specific act of malfeasance—unless you think there’s something illegal about occasionally making the same mistake that your predecessors or peers made. Every time I have seen her, her demeanor has been friendly, concerned, caring, knowledgeable and open, but keep in mind that I am judging only on my experience of seeing on TV a large number of her speeches and other public interactions, without the filter of the carefully concealed sexism of mainstream and rightwing media pundits. Fact-checker after fact-checker has proclaimed her the most honest of all the 20+ candidates to declare for the presidency during this election cycle. She defines steadiness.
In the other corner, we have an ignorant blowhard who allows his pathological narcissism to emerge in insults, illogical statements, empty boasts and odious lies. His positions on most subjects are sketchy or built on one or two “big ideas” which turn out to be bad ideas, like building a wall between the United States and Mexico or creating a new child care benefit that primarily helps high-income families. His business record is deplorable, marred by four major bankruptcies, more than 3,500 lawsuits, many for nonpayment, documented racist business practices and evidence of legal and ethical lapses by both his businesses and his foundation. His debating style is to insult opponents and bait them in petty side-show arguments. Every fact-checker agrees that he is not only the biggest liar in this presidential election, but in every election ever fact-checked. He is the epitome of the erratic.
News reports suggest that the Donald has too little discipline to prepare for anything, while Hillary is putting a lot of time into shaping her answers to potential questions, analyzing potential traps, developing friendly and tasteful ways to goad the eminently goadable Trumpty-Dumpty and practicing zingers. I’m confident that there will be at least one “You’re no Jack Kennedy” moment because Hillary is going to have at least a dozen of clever comebacks lined up and she’ll know if and when to fire. I expect that at some point Hillary will say some version of, “You can insult me and my family all you want, but don’t insult the American people/working class Americans/African Americans/President Obama/the brave men and women who serve this country overseas.” I’m also reasonably sure that towards the end of the debate, the Donald will start to drag, out of a combination of exhaustion and boredom. He may even walk off the stage in a pretend of real pique.
By all objective criteria, I predict Hillary will slay Trumpty-Dumpty, posterize him like LeBron James slam-dunking against Danny DeVito. She will out-fact him, out-argue him, out-issue him and out-zing him, all the while smiling and staying in control.
The moderators and the rest of the news media will face three moments of truth. The first for the moderators will involve the development of their list of questions. Will they ask Clinton about her emails and will they ask Trump about his bankruptcies, many lawsuits, the case against Trump University, evidence of bribery against the Trump Foundation and his connections to the alt-right? I really have no answer to this one, but I hope the moderators and media do not decide to dredge Clinton’s non-scandals or to try to equate them with the many real scandals in Trump’s career.
At this point, asking about Trump’s “birtherism” seems to be unavoidable, and here the moderators, and later the news media, face the second moment of truth: When Trumpty-Dumpty once more gives his biggest lie to date—that Hillary started the “birther” rumor and he was the only one with the puissance and genius to put it to rest—how will the moderator handle it? Will she/he tell Trump to his face that he is lying? Will she/he say the “L” word or substitute some wishy-washy euphemism, like “stretching the truth” or “doesn’t correspond to the factual evidence”? Will she/he pull a Chuck Todd (always a bad thing), which in this case means letting the Hillary part of the lie stand and only correcting the part about Trump being the one to “finish off” birtherism?
And how will the media evaluate what the moderators do? They could applaud or condemn any of the possible ways the moderators decide to respond to what we know will be Trump’s pure and unadulterated, bold-faced, out-and-out, pants-on-fire lie about birtherism.
The third moment of truth will come after the debate is over. Will the news media admit that Hillary won the debate? Or will they grade her down because of non-existent style issues, or I should say, issues of style that would not be issues if she were male.
The media have often focused on style over substance in evaluating debates. I remember watching the 1980 elections as a television news writer and field producer with NBC’s West Coast political commentator of the time and thinking Jimmy Carter kicked Ronald Reagan’s butt; my commentator friend and everyone else in the mainstream news media said that Reagan won on style. Same thing in 2000, when the news media analyzed the candidates’ style so as to avoid the fact that the Republican was a know-nothing. I don’t think the media will be able to say that Trumpty-Dumpty won, but they could continue to promulgate all their false myths about Clinton’s lack of connection with people and untrustworthy demeanor. Say it enough times and people believe it—especially the people who don’t actually watch the debates.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb. I have no idea whether Trump will show up at the second debate, but I predict that he will make some excuse and duck a third KO by Hillary. I hope that any debate that Trump skips goes on without him, so that Hillary has three solid hours to explain exactly how the most progressive agenda by any political party in American history will help 99.5% of all Americans and show the American people that she deserves our votes on merit, and not as the lesser of two evils.