Thursday June 4, 2020

Marion McKeone: Can first presidential debate live up to the hype?

Clinton's experience comes up against Trump's natural TV charisma

26th September, 2016
Hofstra University prepares to host the first presidential debate of the 2016 election Pic: Getty
American football fans wear Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump masks ahead of tonight's US presidential debate Pic: Getty

If you were absent the day your science teacher demonstrated what happens when an unstoppable object meets an immovable force, don’t worry. You can tune into the US presidential debate to find out.

It’s fair to say here in the US this event has been hyped as much as any WWF Final or NFL Super Bowl. This is the ultimate spectator sport for political wonks, reality TV fans and cage fight enthusiasts alike.

It will be impossible for the event to live up to the hype. And it will be equally difficult for Lester Holt, the NBC moderator, to impose any kind of order on a forum that is expected to follow the fact-free, reality-TV format that has characterised this campaign so far.

As with George W Bush back in 2000, expectations have been so lowered to accommodate Donald Trump that if he merely shows up, he’ll already be ahead. If he doesn’t throw up, masturbate on the podium or use the C word, he’ll be deemed to have had a successful evening.

Trump’s other advantage is that he is a TV natural with years of reality show alpha-dog experience. Love him or loathe him, he makes for compelling television. He knows the value of a one-liner, no matter how outrageous, crass or untrue. He also knows that in this election, the only thing worse than dominating the headlines is not dominating them. Which is why he’s happy to employ the former to achieve the latter.

At his outings at the primary debates with 17 candidates no one remembers a single exchange between the other candidates. But everyone remembers Trump’s taunting of ‘low-energy Jeb’, Lyin' Ted and Little Marco.

So Trump may not be swotting up on statistics and foreign policy details. He may not even know what country Benghazi is in. But he will be minting one-liners about Hillary Clinton that are most likely to be remembered, retweeted and otherwise regurgitated for the remainder of the campaign.

Clinton, with an eleven-hour Benghazi grilling and more than a dozen one-on-one debates as a Senate candidate and 2008 and 2016 presidential candidate behind her, isn’t lacking in experience. But she does lack the ability to distil her answers into simple, twitter-friendly slogans.

She lacks Trump’s natural charisma as TV personality but she has a laconic, bone-dry humour that can be surprisingly effective.

The debate format– 90 minutes, broken down into 15-minute sections per subject – allows the candidates little opportunity to duck a determined moderator. It will require Trump to elaborate on his hitherto flimsy policies and Clinton to distill her bewilderingly complex platform to its essence.

It will doubtless become heated, even ugly. But Trump would do well to study attempts by Rick Lazio – a far punier Republican foe – to cower Clinton with an alpha male display of bullying back in 2000. It backfired. Badly. Even in an election as rife with misogyny as this one, the spectre of an oversized male with an oversized ego bullying a wonkish if wily female opponent is unlikely to appeal.

Over the decades much has been made of the ability of debates to influence the outcome of elections. But it has been mainly unchecked gestures that have influenced the audience’s perceptions of the candidates. It was Nixon’s pasty demeanour and excessive sweating that caused voters to opt for the handsome, tanned, imperturbable Kennedy. No one can remember a word they said. Likewise, it was not Reagan’s anodyne and meaningless ‘There you go again’ admonition to a purse-lipped Jimmy Carter as he lectured him on health care. It was the amiable, smiling shake of his head as he dismissed his rival as a prissy pessimist.

Lloyd Bentsen in his takedown of Dan Quayle delivered what was arguably the most memorable vice-presidential debate line ever. But it was Quayle’s rabbit trapped in the headlights response that sunk him.

Likewise when Mike Dukakis failed to show the requisite level of outrage at the hypothetical prospect of his wife being raped or murdered. And when George Bush Sr glanced at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton as the latter responded to a question, clearly signalling that he had better things to do than explain to the American public why they should vote for him.

Al Gore lost the debates not because he droned on about putting Social Security in lockboxes but because his testy and audible sighs reminded everyone of the class know-it-all who scorned the lesser students attempts to work out a problem.

And John McCain forever dispelled his image as a decent if ornery elder statesman when he referred to Barack Obama dismissively as ‘that one’ during a heated exchange. But it was the accompanying gesture, a derisory flick of his hand in Obama’s direction while looking the other way, that made him seem vituperative and condescending.

Over the past few days the Clinton campaign has shown signs of renewed appetite for battle. In particular expect to hear allegations of criminal activity at the Trump Foundation, alleged Trump University scams, the alleged ripping off of small business contractors, unreleased tax returns and assorted claims of moral and business bankruptcy, bigotry, racism and bullying. Trump has more than enough ammunition to fire back and what he lacks in substance he will compensate for in a style that can be devastatingly effective. This is his turf and his medium.

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