Co-Authored by Maclen Zilber, Democratic Strategist and Campaign Consultant based in Hollywood, CA
It's being billed as the heavyweight fight of the year. In the left corner, the global swashbuckler, the pneumonia-battler, the Secretary of the Smack-Down, Hillary Clinton. In the right corner, weighing *mumble mumble* pounds, the yellow-haired yammerer, Donald "What do you have to lose" Trump.
With some of the polls tightening, as we look back in the history books, this first debate could turn out to be one of the most consequential moments in one of the most consequential campaigns in our nation's history.
Both candidates know full-well that having a bad debate performance can sink a campaign - a good one, can get voters to take a second look.
In 1960, when Richard Nixon squared off with John F. Kennedy, Nixon's poor debate performance was widely considered as one of the central reasons for his decline in the polls. President George H.W. Bush's perceived moment of impatience when he checked his wristwatch mid 1992 debate later cost him dearly at the ballot box. More recently, in 2012, President Obama's less-than-stellar first debate against Mitt Romney led to a significant dip in his polling, which gave Democrats across the country chills down their spines.
As Hillary Clinton prepares for this important first debate, she must draw on the moments this cycle that have seen her at her best. There are three speeches she has given this cycle which, in our view, have represented the strongest, most compelling cases she's made against Donald Trump. Thematically, each speech is different, but they all also include some global elements that are somewhat similar. Every one of the trio of speeches centers around a different way to frame the race between herself and Trump, and in each oration, Clinton uniquely takes the stuffing out of her opponent, often using his own words against him.
Unlike the Hillary Clinton of the past, who is known for being overly polished and cautious, each of these three speeches showcase a raw, street fighter, ready to do political battle. This is when Clinton is at her best.
First up, was Clinton's March 23, 2016 event in Palo Alto, California:
Delivered at Stanford University, this speech was a defining moment in the campaign. It came on the heels of the Brussels terrorist attack and reflected Clinton's clear and coherent world-view that supports internationalism, collaboration with U.S. allies, and American leadership around the globe. It was also the first major step Clinton took in a formal address to screwier her soon-to-be general election arch-nemesis, Trump. In it, she questioned his chops for the job of President, lambasted his slogan-first and policy-second strategy and chastised Trump's naive brand of isolationism.
A strong follow up to her Stanford speech was the one she served up on June 3, 2016 in San Diego:
Just days before the final matchup with her former Democratic primary foe in California's primary election, Bernie Sanders, Clinton lobbed a snarky and zinger fueled attack speech against Trump. Breaking out of her normally wonky, policy heavy comfort zone, Clinton hurled some of her most forceful attacks against Trump by balancing a delivery of unfiltered humor with repeating the billionaire's outlandish, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic words back at him. It was also a point in the race where Clinton began to frame Trump as, "temperamentally unfit," for the job of America's chief executive. The combination had a real impact. Not only did Clinton's address turn heads across the nation, but it instantaneously created an unwanted political firestorm for Trump because the bulk of Clinton's remarks consisted of the Republican's own words.
But the coup de grace was Clinton's remarks on August 23, 2016 in Reno, Nevada; her most hard-hitting and provocative to date:
Trump's hiring of Steve Bannon, the CEO of Breitbart News Network and one of the perceived cultivators of the 'alt right' movement, as his campaign's new Chief Executive Officers, validates nearly every claim that the GOP nominee both sympathizes with and is embracing the movement - and its white supremacist underbelly. Loosely defined as an accumulation of militants, white supremacists, survivalists, monarchists, and other extreme right-wing movements that don't fit in with modern conservatism, the alt-right movement stands against multiculturalism, immigration and holds views most Americans find abhorrent. Since the Bannon hire, Clinton has capitalized on it and use it as obvious evidence of Trump's favoritism for this fringe group. In Nevada, she handed down a blistering prosecution against Trump's embrace of the alt-right and its hate group powered movement. Her message was profound and drew a clear line in the sand between her mainstream-ism and the divisive nature of the alt-right that Trump has embraced as his base. It's a narrative that could help fan the flames around the idea that Trump falls outside of the spectrum of what is acceptable in American politics.
Hillary Clinton is at her strongest when she is counterpunching, and Donald Trump is at his weakest when he looks thin-skinned. Who can forget the classic debate moment when Lincoln Chaffee prosecuted an aggressive line of attack against Clinton, Clinton was asked if she'd like to respond, and she casually said "No."
Donald Trump's strength with voters is that he projects an image to many of them that he is strong, healthy and virile. But when he shows himself to be petty, thin-skinned, unable to take even the slightest jokes at his expense, he looks weak, pathetic and small. That's when Donald Trump gets put on the defensive.
If Donald Trump can make himself look like Idi Amin, physically dominating the debate, it almost doesn't matter what he says, he has at least drawn a tie. But if Clinton can make Trump look weak and petty, like a high school bully who has been exposed, the very alt-right voters who are supporting Trump because of his so-called masculinity and virility may find there's a tougher candidate in the room.
Hint: It's the one who campaigned 16 hours a day with pneumonia and didn't complain.