Hillary Has The Bigger Challenge In Setting Up The Big Clinton-Trump Debate

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reacts after speaking at a campaign event at Temple University in Phil
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reacts after speaking at a campaign event at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

This Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump debate on September 26 should be kinda interesting, don't you think? Yeah. With many Democrats deeply alarmed and Hillary's run-out-the-clock strategy in thorough disarray, this debate between two candidates America loves to hate should be the most watched in history.

Even though Hillary Clinton is so much more qualified -- like her or not -- to actually be President of the United States than Trump that it's no longer funny, the maneuvering in the run-up to Great Debate 1 make it clear that, quite counter-intuitively, it is the former secretary of state, senator, and first lady who has the bigger challenge. Why? Well, because she and her team have predicated, not, let's say, all that cleverly, her campaign against the neo-fascist billionaire bully boy on the notion that he is simply too unbalanced to be president. Which presents an obvious problem. What if he doesn't come off as a nut?

Or do you really imagine that Fox News architect and highly experienced presidential media advisor Roger Ailes, shrewd pollster KellyAnne Conway, far right media imagineer Steve Bannon, and bright daughter dearest Ivanka Trump can't get Il Duce Donald to focus on a few themes and topics for 90 minutes? He certainly did well enough getting his feet wet in the NBC Commander-in-Chief Forum two weeks ago.

Yet at least some big name Democrats are insisting that Hillary can rely on Trump unveiling himself as an unhinged nitwit. Maybe so, but I doubt it.

Trump must have learned by now that endlessly obnoxious goofball behavior equals a significant deficit in the polls while a more focused approach equals a very tight race.

Or maybe the Democratic elders were alarmed by Hillary spending so much time in debate prep
-- she's off the road now through the debate, having already backed off her rather light public schedule while Trump continues a raft of appearances -- that they are trying to get her to relax.

The reality is that the Clinton campaign has made Trump's task in this first debate much easier than it should be. He just has to show that he's not a reckless clown, has some coherent clue of what he is about, and says some popular/populist stuff. (That's what he does to hold his own. To beat Clinton in the debate, which we'll get to, requires more.)

Which, as someone who's been warning about the ascension of this guy for more than a year now, I find worrisome. Because I think he can do that.

The Clintons thought they would simply bury Trump with massive advertising spending and campaign attacks by focusing their pitch around the irrational Trump theme. But Trump survived and has closed back in.

Why? Because there is a huge reactionary vote in this country that is not going to be swayed against Trump, since his entire primary campaign was pitched at the grievances of the massive audience so thoughtfully put together by Fox News. And because there are now a lot of folks in the middle and elsewhere -- check the huge numbers of undecideds and folks choosing alternative parties -- who no longer buy what the establishment is selling.

In fact, one could well argue that Trump would actually be sweeping to victory already had he not spent so much time distracting everyone by constantly shooting himself in the, er, foot.

One could also argue that Hillary should already be sweeping to victory since she is so much more qualified and knowledgeable than that Trump, who has rattled on about being so amazingly smart that he doesn't need to study anything. Books, what are they? But so many people distrust her and find her message uncompelling that she was never able to build up a truly big lead, even when Trump was being so amazingly cooperative.

Hillary actually is as intelligent as Trump claims to be ... okay, no, she's not. Because nobody is that smart. But her intelligence is close enough.

Trump has rattled on about what an amazingly high IQ he supposedly has, but it is more likely that Hillary has that sort of IQ.

Even before America turned anti-intellectual (again), it was considered poor form to lay out one's IQ. But it is socially acceptable to say that one made national merit scholar on the college board exams, as Hillary did, an accomplishment which places one well within the top one percent in IQ. That would be the one percent that is decidedly not running the country. And yes, there are some brilliant people who don't test well, and there are some socioeconomic inequities at work, but neither caveat applies to Trump, who has never said he made national merit scholar. Like he wouldn't mention that, right?

But Hillary is the sort of scholar prone to over-preparing, as she may be doing right now. Her usual light public schedule has been scrapped through the debate. And Trump is certainly no dummy. He is, after all, an Ivy Leaguer himself, a graduate of Penn, an elite university by any measure. Funny how Ivy Leaguers don't mention their pride in Trump, isn't it?

In any event, let's assume that Trump doesn't live down to the Clinton campaign's depiction of him. What does Hillary need to do?

First, she needs to do what she has not, i.e., demonstrate that she has an appealing plan to move the country forward.

Then she needs to demonstrate that Trump -- who has undoubtedly picked up some knowledge in the year-plus he's been running for president -- is just too shallow a figure for a very complex era in which a knee-jerk reaction, especially when the reaction is tinged with anger and hatred, is often the wrong one. Yes. That's all.

Trump has an easier task. He needs to appear likable and reasonable, not at all the egomaniacal nut he's not only been made out to be but has so often seemed. And he needs to play hedgehog to Hillary's fox.

Sure, she knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. She should after all her decades in the political game. But she is dead wrong about the few really big things which matter now. About which Trump needs to appear to be knowledgeable and authoritative.

And he should turn Hillary's depiction of him as someone not to be trusted yielding the awesome power of the United States Armed Forces around on Hillary, arguing that she is the real warmonger.

In other words, Hillary needs to sell herself as a knowledgeable and responsive leader who can take American into a challenging and complex future, running against a ridiculously egomaniacal know-nothing who has probably slapped his name on his dressing room backstage and has no clue about the true complexity of the world.

And Trump needs to sell himself as a real tribune of populist concerns that transcend right-wing ideology, running against a corrupt hack who has assiduously studied and then championed some of America's biggest geopolitical disasters.

What about Trump saying "Yeah, I guess so" when Howard Stern asked him about invading Iraq? That is a real problem for Trump. But if Roger Ailes can't figure out how to end up spinning that against Hillary, it will be a bit of surprise.

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