This is so obviously correct that it’s a cinch Trump will eventually do it.
— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) August 1, 2016
He has two options on the debates. It’s not an option to skip them entirely, although no doubt he’d prefer to do that. That would be interpreted, correctly, as cowardice, which would devastate his image as an alpha male. (Bad enough that he’d run away, but to run away from a woman?) So he’s stuck doing at least one. The smart play would be to study his ass off and shock the country with his surprising grasp of policy at the first debate. Everyone will be expecting Trump the loudmouthed clod; if instead they get Trump the statesman battling Hillary to a standstill, it’ll show millions of casual voters that all of the hype about Trump being unready for the presidency was nonsense. And rest assured, there will be many millions of casual voters watching: The first debate between Romney and Obama drew nearly 70 million viewers, double what their speeches at the conventions that summer drew. A Trump/Clinton debate might blow the roof off in terms of viewership. As such, Trump delivering a surprising standout performance could change the election overnight by moving huge swaths of undecideds into his column. And, having delivered that, he could then preserve his victory by boycotting the second and third debates under whatever pretext he likes. All he has to do is turn in one excellent debate. And all he has to do to achieve that is prepare diligently.
But he’s Trump, so he won’t. Which brings us to option two: Take a page from the primaries and pack the stage with as many fringe candidates as possible in order to reduce his own speaking time. The less he has to speak, the fewer opportunities there are for him to show that he has nothing more than a bumper-sticker grasp of policy, and Roger Stone knows it. Having Johnson and Stein onstage in a two-hour debate is the difference between Trump having to fill 45 minutes against a thoroughly prepared Clinton versus half that amount of time. I’m not sure offhand what pretext he might come up with for demanding that they be included, though. Stein in particular is an asterisk candidate. Johnson has flirted with the 15 percent threshold in some polls, but I think it’s uncomfortable to Trump’s ego to insist under any circumstances that someone else should be allowed to share his spotlight. The pretext that’ll be given, I guess, is that this is a populist year and therefore every candidate with a few points of support in the polls deserves a voice onstage. The Debate Commission might not agree, but even if worse comes to worst Trump will still earn some cheap goodwill from Johnson and Stein fans by going to bat for them. It’s a perfectly logical move to make. So he’ll make it.
If you missed it this weekend, incidentally, he’s already grasping for excuses to skip the debates:
As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games. Same as last time w/ Bernie. Unacceptable!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2016
The debate schedule was set more than a year ago by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is bipartisan. The fact that Trump is straining for an excuse to delegitimize them is telling; it’s not often that you’ll find the Trump hype machine suggesting that voters might prefer to watch something besides him, especially when it’s the biggest night of his life. The truth, of course, is that Team Hillary should be more irritated about the debate schedule than Trump is. They’re convinced she’s going to ace this. They should want maximum eyeballs for the slaughter. Trump’s taking the lead on complaining because he wants an excuse later for backing out of the last two debates. I tried to get them to change the dates, he’ll say, but they wouldn’t listen. The world is so unfair.
Exit question: Does Trump have a legit gripe about the debates going head to head with the NFL given that his base is working-class white men, a prime audience for football? If the answer is yes, is that mitigated any by the fact that pretty much every cable company in America includes a DVR with its cable box? You can record the debate and watch it after the game, you know. Or watch one of the eight thousand different recordings of it that’ll be uploaded to YouTube immediately afterward.