Hillary Clinton’s task in the very important first presidential debate on Monday is reasonably straightforward, if not easy to execute: She has to sharply differentiate herself from Donald Trump in a way that “raises the stakes” of the election for marginal voters and those leaning toward minor-party candidates, while clarifying the popular things she plans to accomplish as president.
But one aspect of her debate prep is much more of a crapshoot: anticipating what Donald Trump might do and how she can parry it.
Therein lies the mystery: Trump is unpredictable and unconventional enough that counting on any one approach from him might be an unfortunate gamble. He has no history of general-election debates to consult. His own strategic imperatives are less obvious than Clinton’s; he will likely use the debate to continue to consolidate Republican support, but could do so either by appearing unexpectedly calm and reasonable, or by going harshly negative and reminding GOP voters of all the things they dislike about the Clintons. Or he could take a compound approach, mostly coming across as sane and even rational, but then tossing out some preplanned bombs that could throw Clinton off her game and/or dominate follow-up media coverage.
How Trump frames the stakes involved in the election will matter as well. He could try to relentlessly identify his opponent with the past and present and pose as the “change” candidate. Or he could exploit the media’s false-equivalence addiction by exchanging charges of extremism and mendacity with Clinton, counting on late breaks and anti-incumbent fundamentals to get him over the line on November 8.
Only he and perhaps his handlers know what he’s going to do. And so, methodical to a fault, it seems Team Clinton is planning for every contingency, according to a report from The Hill:
In closed-door sessions, the Democratic presidential nominee is prepping for their first presidential debate on Monday against a few different people playing the role of Trump.
The role-playing games with different surrogates are “for his multiple personalities,” one Clinton confidant said of the controversial GOP nominee.
If you had to choose a candidate best suited to this kind of complex debate prep, it could well be Hillary Clinton, given her mastery of detail and capacity for sheer hard work, qualities that have always made her a better-than-average debater. But Trump’s ability during the primary-season debates to improvise and blunder and bluster and still come out with an advantage has to be daunting for an opponent, notwithstanding the differences in context and audience the general-election debates involve. It’s like taking on an unusually crafty feral cat that can leap out of the best-planned traps. Her team is already working the ultimate refs by playing down expectations. But she still has to meet them.