The consensus among political observers seems to be that the first presidential debate, scheduled for September 26 on Long Island, will provide a rich opportunity for Hillary Clinton to expose and embarrass Donald Trump. Clinton is, after all — whatever else you want to say about her — a policy wonk who has been immersed in the minutiae of everything from bankruptcy law to foreign policy for decades. Trump, on the other hand, is Trump, and in those few instances in which journalists have done what a moderator can do in a general-election debate — that is, poke and prod and ask follow-up questions — he hasn’t performed well. He responded to a question about tactical nukes from the Washington Post‘s editorial board by telling the board’s members they were “very good looking,” for example, and in an extended interview with the New York Times’ David Sanger and Maggie Haberman, he seemed to say that as president he would unilaterally renege on America’s NATO obligations.
But, according to a New York Times article, Trump just picked up a potentially valuable ally in his attempt to defy expectations next month: Roger Ailes, who was recently forced out of his role as head of Fox News as a result of what a large group of former and current female employees there say was a long and disturbing history of sexual harassment and corporate cover-up of his behavior — Megan Kelly is an alleged Ailes victim, and one former employee told New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman she was “psychologically tortured” by Ailes over the course of years. Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks swiftly denied the Times report.
“Valuable” might be a strange-sounding way to describe this alleged arrangement at first, given how widely reviled Ailes is at the moment and the blowback likely to follow from this news. But as Maggie Haberman and Ashley Parker of the Times note, Ailes is a seasoned veteran of political campaigns, having worked for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, as well as an expert (of course) on conservative messaging more broadly. According to Newt Gingrich’s website, Haberman and Parker write, Ailes is responsible for one of the most famous moments in modern debate history: when Ronald Reagan was asked about his age in a debate in 1984 and responded, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Clinton, meanwhile, does face one disadvantage as the highly anticipated debate approaches, though: the formidable task of finding someone who can realistically imitate Trump to help her prepare. “It needs to be someone who is naturally smart, glib and utterly irreverent,” Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told Politico’s Annie Karni. “You can’t learn to be utterly irreverent.” As Karni notes, “Out-Trumping Trump to prepare Clinton is an inherently awkward enterprise, one which is expected to unfold only in front of a small group of trusted aides. Clinton allies are comparing the confidentiality surrounding the tricky upcoming prep sessions to that of a closed film set when actors are shooting a nude scene.”
All this stands in marked contrast to how Democratic debate prep went down during the last presidential election cycle. Then, Obama’s opponent was Mitt Romney, and Romney is not a hard man to imitate: Just wear a nicely fitting suit, be handsome, look directly at the camera, pause between sentences, and rattle off anodyne remarks about Family and Hard Work and America Being on Not-Quite-the-Right Track. Making the task even easier, Obama already had, in
his very administration the Senate, a master of handsome suit-wearing anodynity of his own, and by all accounts John Kerry did a solid job. (Update: A commenter pointed out, correctly, that at the time Kerry was still in the Senate.)
This time, lacking any obvious options, Clinton’s campaign appears to be casting a wide net in its search for someone to step into the big shoes (and, presumably, reach into the tiny hands) of Donald Trump:
Self-made billionaire Mark Cuban, who endorsed Clinton last month, told POLITICO he was “happy to do it,” but noted that no one had yet asked.
But Democrats said he might have the the swagger to avoid being too deferential to Clinton. Rep. Joe Crowley, a New Yorker with a large presence, could perhaps more accurately channel Trump’s Queens heritage, other Clinton allies said. Other potential Trump stand-ins discussed include James Carville, a naturally irreverent character who is trusted by the Clintons, Sen. Al Franken, a longtime Clinton ally with an actor’s rearing, and Ron Klain, the former Biden aide who is running Clinton’s general election debate prep and is already part of her leak-free inner circle.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell joked that he is “probably one of the only ones who says things bordering on the outrageous like Trump does” but that he was not angling for the job.
Franken certainly has the showiness to pull this off. But given how unusual a campaign this is, it might be time to expand the list to include some less orthodox possibilities. Four options:
- A coked-up gorilla
- Howard Dean after being kept awake for three straight weeks in a windowless cell 2,000 feet under DNC headquarters
- Donald Trump (just tell him it’s the actual debate)
- A starving grizzly that has been trained to act more aggressively than it would otherwise
What a time to be alive.