There’s no way that reverting to a British colony could be worse than this. It’d certainly be more dignified.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Priebus how Trump had prepared for Monday night’s face-off at Hofstra University in Long Island.
“Studying, preparing, going through hypotheticals and what scenarios might come up, but he’s very comfortable,” the RNC chair replied. “He did a great job in our primary debates. He’s also been through, what, 14 seasons, season finales. He will be prepared. He’s always showed up for the big dance, and he will be prepared and he’ll be ready to go tonight.”
Is this the “season finale”? It’s supposed to be part one in an exciting three-episode arc. Emphasis on “supposed to be.”
[A] new question is obsessing the Trump-obsessed, with the first of three scheduled presidential debates drawing near: Will the capricious, unabashedly vain and uncommonly boastful Republican nominee, who skipped a climactic primary season debate in Iowa over a feud with the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, wind up quitting after one confrontation with Mrs. Clinton?
If he acquits himself well, the thinking goes, Mr. Trump may try to freeze the score rather than pushing his luck with a rematch. And if he bombs, he may well decide to eliminate the risk of a second drubbing.
It’s hard to imagine what could happen tonight to make Trump decide that further debates are in his interest. He has to show up to this one because voters are legitimately worried that he’s unqualified and because, if he ducks Clinton entirely, he’ll be mocked as the bully who ran away from the girl. If he refused to debate at all, it would be taken as an admission that he can’t talk semi-coherently about policy beyond the 10 minutes or so that were required of him during the primary debates. So he’ll show up, he’ll do his 90 minutes one-on-one with Clinton, he’ll sound coherent enough to reassure 90 percent of the public that he sort of knows what he’s talking about and is up to the job, and then he’s done. As the Times says, if he somehow wins big, there’s no point in risking another debate. If he loses big, there’s … no point in risking another debate. And if it’s a stalemate in which each candidate has his/her moments, Trump might calculate that that’s a bullet dodged and there’s no sense in absorbing the risk of a hugely damaging mishap in the future by doing two more. The polling trendlines are in his favor now and are likely to be further in his favor if he acquits himself well tonight. If he’s the new favorite to win, it’s senseless to give a seasoned debater like Clinton two more chances to talk herself back into the race.
I can’t imagine how tonight won’t be a success for him either. Ross Douthat had a piece out yesterday arguing that Clinton will win these debates because, let’s face it, Trump really can’t talk coherently about policy for 90 minutes. That’s bound to shine through eventually. Not necessarily, I think — especially if we only end up with one debate after all. Trump will never be a “disciplined” politician but he’s been disciplined enough lately to avoid stepping on major political landmines like his Judge Curiel criticism or his spat with the Khan family. There’s a rumor floating around as I write this that he’ll open tonight by congratulating Hillary on becoming the first woman nominee in order to impress voters with his new spirit of civility and forward-thinking feminism ‘n stuff. He won’t know facts and figures as well as she does but he’ll have prepared well enough to avoid any big blunders, like personal insults, losing his temper, and so on. The last few weeks of news and political polling are on his side too. All anyone expects out of Trump tonight is not to behave like a gorilla. He can do that for 90 minutes, and he can offer enough appealing bumper-sticker policy proposals — build the wall, bomb the terrorists, better trade deals — to satisfy most voters. I’ve seen lefties murmuring that Hillary needs to force Trump to explain how he’s going to do all of this, but we’re 16 months into this space adventure and that hasn’t stopped him yet. The explanation will be what it’s always been, that Trump is a consummate winner and a managerial genius, despite all evidence to the contrary, and he’ll use his genius for winning to make America win too. Has he prepped enough to pad that message with policy talking points and random gobbledygook to soak up 40 minutes of speaking time? Sarah Palin got through 90 minutes with Joe Biden, didn’t she?
Besides, if there’s anything Trump excels at, it’s putting his opponents on the defensive. He could sound as thoughtful as a fourth-grader in explaining his policies tonight but if he keeps up the pressure on Clinton over her 8,000 political problems, from Iraq to her emails to her flip-flopping on trade to her open-borders stances and on and on, then he’ll be seen as having won purely because he was the dominant figure in their exchanges. Make the debate about Hillary rather than about him. I stand by what I said last week: If he succeeds in hammering the message that nothing will change if Clinton wins in November, he’ll win tonight even if he sounds shaky on policy at times. He may win even if he doesn’t hammer that message because, as Kevin Williamson says, “In a politics of pure spectacle, the advantage belongs to the creature of pure celebrity.” With an electorate that’s uninterested in policy detail, why would Douthat or anyone else expect Trump to be at a meaningful disadvantage just because he’s uninterested in it too? He’ll win. The question is only whether he wins decisively enough to really move next week’s polls.