Monday 20 November 2017

Clinton and Trump get ready to rumble in crucial debates

Hillary Clinton will point to Trump’s extreme statements and lack of experience Picture: Getty
Hillary Clinton will point to Trump’s extreme statements and lack of experience Picture: Getty

Carole Coleman

If you consider the US presidential race a nasty mud-slinging affair to date, get ready for some bare-knuckle fighting and blood-letting during the first of the head-to-head debates on Monday.

The event at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island is as anticipated as a Conor McGregor fight and will likely break television viewing records as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face American citizens, the world and each other.

Theoretically, the presidential debate is when candidates exit their comfy campaign bubbles and submit to a public job interview.

On jobs, taxes, terrorism, immigration, and a raft of trending issues, Clinton and Trump are expected to set out their stall while simultaneously blowing craters in their opponent's plans. Ideally, petty name-calling and sloganeering are supposed to take second place to the job of work ahead.

But the reality is that, since the first televised debate in 1960 when a confident and youthful John F Kennedy left a perspiring Richard Nixon in the shadows, appearances and showmanship are crucial.

True, a killer soundbite can be decisive. Take, for example, Ronald Reagan's "There you go again!" quip in 1980 to the struggling incumbent Jimmy Carter. Yet it's often a candidate's demeanour that makes the biggest impact.

Some even suggest watching a presidential debate with the sound turned off, allowing the candidates' body language and facial expressions to do the talking. I will not be turning off the sound.

After 15 months of distracting one-liners, I want to be able to compare and contrast in some detail the candidates' policies. Rather than listen to insults being traded, I want to know - at a time of unbelievable inequality - how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton view American democracy. I want to hear their ideas for bringing the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen to an end. And critically, I want to know under what circumstances either candidate would invade another country. 

For the sake of family members in America, I also want to know if the new president plans to work with the opposing party for the good of all Americans. Reaching across the aisle now seems like a quaint idea from the middle of the last century. I want to hear how - as America's next president - Clinton or Trump will accommodate the half or more of the electorate which opposes them. Ignoring the losers won't be an option.

Monday night's moderator has an almost impossible task. NBC's anchorman Lester Holt must insist on answers to the questions he asks and interrupt candidates bent on long-winded diversions. In 2004, my own experience interviewing former President George W Bush on the Iraq war taught me that it's better to be berated for being a little cheeky, than to be castigated for failing to ask the hard questions. 

Most importantly, Holt - with the assistance of his network's fact checkers - must be ready to challenge statements that are inaccurate or downright false.

Mr Trump has elevated exaggeration and innuendo to an art form. Some of his claims and promises are so unlikely that American journalists no longer know how to react. Mrs Clinton likewise has her moments. So how about, "What evidence do you have to back that up, Mr Trump?"; "Can you get congressional support for that, Mrs Clinton?"; "How do you intend to pay for that, Mr Trump?" The moderator's job will be to cut through the fog and hold up the facts.

Both Clinton and Trump have been rehearsing for this first debate with aides, media experts and opponent stand-ins. But don't expect Trump to stick to any prepared script. "I believe you can prep too much for those things," the Republican candidate has said, suggesting he'll wing it, much as he did during the primary debates.  

Clinton has been debating since her years at Yale law school. She rarely slips up, yet her message often seems to evaporate seconds after it's delivered. Who can name one thing she intends to do on her first day in office? Clinton needs to bring along to Monday's debate her to-do list and shout it loud.

Of course, an event watched by a hundred million or more viewers - a political record in the making - would be wasted without some Olympian sparring between candidates; and how Clinton undermines Trump's sweeping promises will no doubt be crucial to the spin-room outcome.

We can already guess how Mr Trump will rubbish Mrs Clinton. 

Trump will certainly play the 'Crooked Hillary' card. It's worked so effectively for him in this election he would be mad not to. He'll paint Clinton as the establishment queen who's had her chance and failed miserably. Moreover, Trump will remind Republican viewers that Clinton keeps many of them in her "basket of deplorables".

Similarly, Clinton will poke her opponent by simply repeating some of his most memorable lines. Trump will be tempted to attack her gender but, for the sake of female votes, will ultimately hold back. 

Trump has one major advantage in these debates. He can point to America's ills - shuttered factories, absent law and order, domestic terrorism - and blame them on Hillary Clinton and her establishment cronies. Though Clinton's not an incumbent president seeking re-election, Trump has managed to cast her in that role as Obama's successor.

To the contrary, Clinton has only Trump's lack of political experience and extreme statements and distinctive personality with which to retaliate - which some feel ought to be plenty.

Donald Trump will seek to widen his electoral base with allegations about the Clinton Foundation or what Bill might get up to once back in the White House. But Hillary has been taking incoming missiles for 25 years and remains standing. If she can make Donald explode with red-faced anger, showing him to be unfit for office, Hillary too could gain late converts. 

With polls so close less than seven weeks before the election, this debate will be all about impressing the undecided and the bewildered. Current numbers show that roughly half of voters will cast a ballot against a candidate - rather than for one. Others who can't support either Trump or Clinton say they'll vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, or will just stay home.

With early voting already underway in several US states, this first of three presidential debates may be a last chance to sway voters. That's if they haven't turned down the sound or switched over to Monday night football.

Carole Coleman is a former RTÉ Washington Correspondent

Irish Independent

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