Saturday, September 24, 2016

Musings on a Debate Strategy

Trump vs. Hillary, from CBS News Miami coverage
You might have heard, but there's an election in the United States this November. This Monday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will face off in the first of three debates in the race to decide the next President of the United States. In a one-on-one format with any sense of real moderation, Trump's strategy from the Republican primary debates (those he didn't just skip out on, that is) will not work. So what's he likely to do? And how should Hillary approach her own preparation for the first face-to-face confrontation with her political foe?

I've attended a fair share of debates over the years, and I suspect that Trump will follow the strategy favored by those who do not have the strength of facts on their side: He'll simply lie. Lie early and lie often, and hope to drag Hillary into attempting to refute those lies. This requires virtually no debate prep work for the Donald; no pesky reading up on where (or what, Gov. Johnson!) Aleppo is, no need to scrutinize the actual impact of the Trump tax plan de jure ("Everybody gets a tax cut! You get a tax cut! And you get a tax cut! And you do, too!"); no need to come up with a proposal for how to deal with North Korea's nuclear fascination. Just lie, lie a lot, and lie loudly. Don't get into details; wave your hands a lot and make braggartly claims backed only by the insistence we "trust you" about how "yuuuuge" it will be.

That's what I have seen in many a Creationism-Evolution debate: the Creationist knows that if he can draw the scientist into trying to refute even a fraction of his fatuous and facile claims, the scientist will spend the entire time on that hopeless task.  Besides the fact that this leaves the scientist no time to make his own case, it gives the audience with the mistaken perception that the Creationist has a preponderance of evidence on his side, and even makes the scientist look petty for pointing out all the Creationist's fallacies.  And it works quite well against the amateur debate opponent, or the sincere one.

My advice to Hillary: Leave the bulk of the refutation to fact checkers.  Don't take the bait; let Trump accuse you of everything from Vince Foster's murder upon an altar to Satan to selling out the nuclear codes to Chinese campaign donors.  He's going to do it anyway, so just grin and bear it.  Refuting Trump's lies is not the way to win the debate.

Look back to the political conventions, where the Republicans sold the country an existential horror show of a failed wasteland of a nation, her military emasculated and reduced to boot-licking the world's bullies, her economy circling the bowl of an out-of-order toilet at a truck stop across from a taco truck with a 2-for-1 bean burrito special for the day, overrun by hordes of ebola-carrying, bomb-toting, job-stealing refugees on magic prayer rugs. Look back to the conventions, where the Democrats laid out a positive vision of the present and the future, of a shining city on the hill (apologies, St. Ronnie, but yeah, it was the Democrats, oh how times change!), celebrating the successes of the greatest nation in the world and the immigrant-embracing paean of Emma Lazarus's hallowed inscription at the very gateway to the country's shores.

In other words, simply lay out your own positions, Mrs. Clinton, addressing the issues, and call out the occasional (but apt) contrast to Trump's own words (I hesitate to call them "positions" given he changes them at a speed that would give even the once-perceived King of the Flip-flop, John Kerry, whiplash).  Let Trump blather away with his lies, insults, and playground name-calling like the man-baby he is.  The American electorate is not the Republican primary electorate; they will see through Trump's shuck-and-jive.  Let the moderator and the pundits the next day cite the untruths and hollow statements he makes.  Americans simply need to see a reason to trust you, to find faith in your policies and positions, much as they did in the post-convention glow where everyone breathed a quick sigh of relief at the apparent relegation of Trump's chances to the dustbins of electoral history.  Delivering that positive vision at the Democratic convention gave you a huge boost in the polls and in the perception of undecided and moderate voters.

Give details where appropriate, and the contrast to Trump's own empty statements will be singingly, painfully clear to everyone watching ("I have a plan for ISIS, but look, I don't want to give it away; I'll ask the generals; I have a great plan, but can't tell you. I have a plan for the economy; it will be huge, believe me, we'll gladly be putting out the details next Tuesday when we pay you back for that hamburger from today!").  No need to even call him out, really.

Finally, if you must, there is one thing you might do to needle the Orange One. I know it's tough to resist, and he is incredibly thin-skinned: far more so than we as the entire world can afford. But he is particularly sensitive about one thing in particular. You might, Madame Secretary, consider working in somewhere, somehow, a jibe that Trump isn't quite the rich man he claims to be. Don't go after his taxes; he'll just say, "Where are the speech transcripts?" or something equally inane. Perhaps simply point out some of the great work the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative have done around the world, like the hundreds of millions they've helped feed, educate, and protect from disease, and ask why while they have been doing that, has the Trump Foundation been purchasing him $20,000 portraits of himself?