On one of my first treks to New Hampshire in 1991, to test President George H.W. Bramble, I kept running into Sen. Eugene McCarthy. He was coming back to the scene of his ’68 triumph when he had perpetrated the first crippling wound on Lyndon Johnson.
“Pat, you don’t have to win up here, you know,” he assured me. “All you have to do is beat the point spread.”
“Beat the point spread” is a decent portrayal of what Donald Trump needs to do in Monday night’s level headed discussion.
With just a year in national politics, he doesn’t need to demonstrate an authority of foreign and domestic policy details. Or maybe, he needs to do what John F. Kennedy did in 1960 and what Ronald Reagan did in 1980.
He needs to meet and surpass desires, which are not terribly high. He needs to persuade a majority of voters, who seem prepared to vote for him, that he’s not a terrible risk and that he will be a president of whom they can be glad.
He needs to show the country a Trump that contradicts the caricature created by those who dominate our politics, culture, and press.
The Trump in front of an audience at Hofstra University will have an hour and a half to show that the vindictive sketch of Donald Trump is a defamatory falsehood. He can do it, for he did it at the Mexico City question and answer session with President Pena Nieto where he astounded his partners and staggered his enemies.
Recall. Kennedy and Reagan, as well, came into their significant slice of the electorate undecided but ready to vote for them if each could relieve the voters’ anxieties about his being within reach of the button to launch a nuclear war.
Kennedy won the first debate, not because he offered all the more persuading contentions or more points of interest on the issues, but since he seemed more clear, agreeable and appealing, more mature than people had suspected. Furthermore, he appeared to indicate a brighter, all the more challenging future for which the nation was set up after Ike.
After that first debate, Americans could see JFK sitting in the Oval Office.
Reagan won his debate with Carter since his sunny disposition and demeanor and his “There you go again!” breezy rejection of Carter’s nitpicking negated the vindictive media-made exaggerations of the Gipper as an unsafe primitive or an amiable dunce.
Indeed, George W. Bush, who, as per most judges, did not win a single debate against Al Gore or John Kerry, appeared to be a levelheaded fellow who was more relatable than the designer of the Internet or the windsurfer of Cape Cod.
The winner of presidential debates is not the person who aggregates the most debating points. It is the one whom the audience chooses they like, and can be happy with taking a risk on.
Trump has the same goal and same opportunity as JFK and Reagan. For the anticipated audience, of Super Bowl size, will be there to see him, not her. He is the challenger who tops off the games fields with the tens and scores of thousands, not Hillary Clinton.
If she were debating John Kasich or Jeb Bush, neither the viewing audience nor the title-fight excitement of Monday night would be there. In particular, what does Trump need to do? He needs to demonstrate that he can be presidential. He needs to speak with confidence, but not cockiness, and to deal with Clinton’s attacks directly, but with dignity and not disrespect. And humor always helps.
Clinton has a more difficult assignment.
America knows she knows the issues. But two-thirds of the country does not trust her to be honest or trustworthy. As her small crowd’s show, she sets nobody ablaze. Blacks, Hispanics, and millennials who put high trusts in Barack Obama appear to have no awesome trusts in her. She has no striking motivation, no New Deal or New Frontier.
“Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” howled Hillary Clinton this week.
The answer is simple. America has seen enough of her and has no incredible craving to see anymore; and she can’t change an impression hardened over 25 years – in 90 minutes.
But the country will acknowledge her if the only alternative is the Trump of the standard media’s depiction. Consequently, the procedure of the Democratic Party for the following seven weeks is obvious:
Trash Trump, take him down, make him intolerable, and we win.
Regardless of how she performs, however, Donald Trump can win the debate, for he is the one over whom the question marks hang. But he is also the one who can dissipate and destroy them with a presidential performance.
In that sense, this debate and this election are Trump’s to win.