At last, a real confrontation. The first debate will test Hillary, the Donald and Lester Holt. Which Hillary will show up? “Deplorables,” too smarmy, too clever Hillary? Warm and connected Hillary? Which Donald? Abuse and lie Donald? Voice of the people Donald?
A lot ― too much ― will depend on the moderator. Finding that narrow slice somewhere between “Gotcha” and “Doormat” won’t be easy. Here are four questions that Holt could use to his credit and our enlightenment. And some suggested answers.
Question 1: “What do you find admirable about your opponent?”
Hillary: “He’s shown an ability to understand and articulate the views of lots of Americans who feel disenfranchised by our current politics.
Donald: “She’s smart and commands the vocabulary and nuances of issues.”
Bad answer: “He/she has wonderful children.”
It’s a tough opener. Both can list what they don’t like with ease. Finding the good in your adversary is an insight into character and fairness. No jokes about this before the answer, which will test each candidate’s sincerity and likability.
Question 2: “What can you do to gain the trust and respect of American voters, especially those who support your opponent?
Donald: “Communicate better about my strong desire to include everyone in our aspirations and policies.”
Hillary: “Show that I am listening and responding to the concerns of all Americans, even if they disagree with me.
Bad answer: “Keep my campaign promises.”
The answers will reveal the candidate’s ability to admit shortcomings, and the quantity of humility each possesses.
Question 3: “What would you do specifically, including military force, in the face of China’s increasing use of man-made islands to assert its power and control in Southeast Asia?”
Hillary: “Firmly but calmly ensure that the American navy establishes its’ right to sail in historically open waters as though the man-made islands weren’t there.”
Donald: “The Chinese will see a new American toughness across the world, and will come to terms about these islands quite quickly.”
Bad answers: For Hillary, “Work with the international community.” For Donald: “Blockade/bomb them if they won’t agree to our terms.”
Fitness to lead internationally can be tested by specific challenges rather than generalized assertions. She can show toughness in a measured way. Him too, with care not to veer off into casual use of the military.
Question 4: “Is man-made global warming real? If so, name two things you will do about it.”
Donald: “I don’t need to referee a scientific controversy. We should take steps in any case, including getting the Chinese and Indian governments to do even a portion of what America is doing.”
Hillary: “You bet it’s real. We need to lead the international efforts to reduce warming internationally and continue our support of clean energy alternatives at home.”
Bad answers: For Donald, “Her radical environmental agenda will hurt the economy.” For Hillary: “He’s a captive of deniers and coal companies.”
Americans strongly acknowledge that global warming exists. They’re not sure how to respond. Donald can’t insult that portion of his base which disagrees, but can’t join the climate deniers. Hillary has to avoid inflaming the those whose economic future is tied to coal.
The substance of answers will matter less than what they tell us about Hillary and Donald. The suggested questions are intended to illuminate character as much as explain policy. They’re intended to keep Holt above the battle, but speaking to issues and insights viewers care about. The suggested answers will clarify the human qualities of both candidates, who now suffer from innumerable self-inflicted character wounds. She needs to show the kind of warmth and connectedness that emerged from the Democratic Convention. He needs to show that the new, under-control Donald is real.
Dangers: Hillary will be badly hurt by any show of physical weakness or exhaustion. Donald will be badly hurt by any repetitions of his Megan Kelly/disabled reporter outbursts.
Predictions: To the extent that no enormous mistakes are made, and to the extent that undecided voters are movable, the debate sets up for Hillary. The recent improved poll results for Trump are not based in big increases for him. She’s lost some folks. It’s easier to recapture that constituency than persuade new people to join your campaign.
The first half will be a draw, as both candidates are prepared and understand what they need to avoid. The second half will wear down the Donald’s patience more than it wears down Hillary’s stamina. He will emerge as largely unknowledgeable about issues, and something of a loose cannon. She will not falter physically and maintain humor and intelligence as a shield. An edge to Hillary but no knockouts.