My colleague Kate Dolgenos has already laid out what Hillary Clinton needs to do to win the first presidential debate on Monday night. As she rightly raised, Mrs. Clinton is a career public servant well-accustomed to the debate stage and the deep policy questions which she will likely field. In this atmosphere, how can a political novice like Donald Trump, who has shattered convention at every turn this election season, take home a win? Here is my advice for the Donald:
Demonstrate knowledge of issues and policy.
One of my greatest reservations about Donald Trump stems from his apparent lack of understanding of the crucial issues facing our country. And judging by recent polling data, the American people share my concern. According to a Washington Post survey conducted from September 19-22, only two-fifths of registered voters trust him more than Mrs. Clinton to handle an international crisis, while almost 60 percent of voters—and nearly a quarter of Republicans—agree that Mr. Trump does not know “enough about world affairs to serve effectively as president.”
Fortunately for Mr. Trump, expectations are low, thanks to a media which has repeatedly predicted his failure to elaborate coherent domestic and foreign policy agendas under the glaring lights of the debate stage. If he manages to exceed expectations, defending his core policy proposals with facts, details, and specifics, he will go a long way toward convincing voters unsure about his fitness for the presidency that he, despite his dearth of political experience, is capable and willing to do the job right.
Connect Hillary Clinton to the establishment—and show why that’s bad.
Demonstrating that Hillary Clinton is just more of the same will be the easiest task before Donald Trump. But he also must expound upon why a candidate of the establishment is so undesirable. Many Americans feel that a vote for Hillary Clinton, the status quo, is a welcome alternative to an unpredictable candidate like Mr. Trump. To counter this view, the G.O.P. nominee must lay out a comprehensive case against Mrs. Clinton and the Obama presidency for viewers, illustrating how business-as-usual politics has destroyed American credibility abroad and good blue-collar jobs back home.
Though hyperbolic, Mr. Trump’s latest favorite line on the stump—“what the hell do you have to lose?”—sums up the driving force behind his campaign. The American people desperately desire change, but the burden rests on Mr. Trump to show that the current state of affairs is bad enough to justify a leap of faith in November.
Demur when attacked.
Donald Trump has said many controversial things over the course of this election season, and Hillary Clinton will undoubtedly seize upon these comments as evidence that her opponent lacks both the levelheadedness and the basic human decency which a president must exercise at all times. Her goal is to fluster Mr. Trump and force him to spend all of his time defending himself and his tactless, even offensive comments.
This is a trap, and Donald Trump must recognize it as such in order to win. When Mrs. Clinton brings up his past statements, Mr. Trump should take a deep breath, apologize, and then throw a brutal riposte at his opponent, her abysmal record, and her own less-than-admirable comments. By letting these criticisms slide and returning the debate to the issues, Mr. Trump can undermine his opponent’s contention that he is too unhinged and too dangerous to be president.
Show compassion and humility—and how Clinton lacks both.
In a column for NewsMax, veteran political analyst and pollster Frank Luntz laid out his own strategy for how Donald Trump might win the first presidential debate. His most salient point is that by apologizing for past mistakes, Mr. Trump opens an angle of attack upon Mrs. Clinton for her unwillingness to hold herself accountable before the American people. In the voice of the Republican nominee, Mr. Luntz writes:
Mrs. Clinton, I have recognized where I have gone wrong and shared my mistakes with the American people. Will you? Sitting in the front row where my family would normally be sitting are the parents of the men killed in Benghazi. They have suffered so much. Will you apologize to them for saying “What does it matter?” Will you ask their forgiveness for not coming to their aid when they needed it? And will you publicly apologize to the American people for putting your State Department server in your home and jeopardizing national security, and accepting donations from some of the most horrific governments and people for the Clinton Foundation.
By owning up to his own errors in this way, Mr. Trump can force Mrs. Clinton into a corner. If she dodges, she looks evasive and plays directly into Mr. Trump’s anti-establishment narrative. If she accepts responsibility for her actions, she will acknowledge that her record is not quite as sparkling as she portrays it, thereby rendering herself vulnerable to new assaults upon her character and her record.