NEW YORK – Conventional wisdom says Donald Trump is going to lose, and lose big.
You see it everywhere in corporate media. Republican Party insiders are bereft and in denial, simultaneously refusing to accept the reality that their party is facing the possibility of catastrophic defeats in races all over the country this fall; indeed, some pundits say Trump marks the beginning of the end of the GOP. The New York Times is running a 24-7 odds placement that puts Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory at 86 percent against his 14 percent.
Indeed, if the election were held today, Clinton would beat Trump by a sizable margin. But that’s not the case. Two months is a long time. Old scandals percolate; new ones emerge. Another terrorist attack could prompt voters to turn to the right.
By far the biggest potential game changer, however, are the presidential debates. Conventional wisdom says Clinton will use her superior command of the facts and her ability to name-drop world leaders to run circles around Trump. But conventional wisdom is often wrong — just ask unstoppable 2016 Republican presidential nominee Jeb Bush.
I think Trump will trounce Clinton in the debates. In fact, I can’t imagine any scenario in which she doesn’t get destroyed.
We like to think that the presidential debates are about issues and facts. They aren’t. The winner is the candidate who unleashes the zingiest one-liners and putdowns. “There you go again.”
“Where’s the beef?”
“I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
You’ve watched Trump. You’ve watched Clinton. Who do you think is better positioned to control the format?
I have no idea whether Clinton can be quick on her feet or sharp with a nasty one-liner. It doesn’t matter. Her brand is experience and competence. She can’t get down into the gutter with Trump without undermining her message that she’s the adult. She has to look serious and come across as — there’s no other word for it — boring. Remember what happened to Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush when they tried to out-Trump Trump: they wrecked whatever chances they still had to stop him during the primaries.
A more courtly candidate (Bernie Sanders) might have gone easy on Clinton for fear of being viewed as sexist. That concern won’t cross Trump’s mind. He’ll go after her with the ferocity of Black Friday shoppers chasing down a discount Xbox.
Does Trump have vulnerabilities? Obviously. Clinton’s aces in the hole are the temperament argument and his refusal to release his taxes. The secrecy surrounding his tax returns raises suspicions that risk unraveling the fundamental rationale of his candidacy: I’m rich and successful, and I can use the talents I used to get that way to benefit the country. But her vulnerabilities are more serious.
The problem for Clinton is that she has gotten a relatively free ride from journalists and pundits, most of whom will vote for her. Her hypocrisies and inconsistencies comparatively unexamined, she emerges from her primary campaign untested and untempered. The debates offer Trump a juicy opportunity to expose those weaknesses on what promises to be a national stage with record audiences.
If she asks him about his tax returns, he can deflect by demanding the transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms, which she repeatedly refused to release while fending off Bernie. When she goes after him on ethics, he’ll pound away on the 30,000 deleted emails. Oh, and now there’s the latest Clinton Foundation sleaze too. If Trump wants to go nuclear, he can slam her with the biggest unreported story of the year: the allegation that her husband Bill was a frequent flyer on a convicted pedophile’s sexual tourism escapades overseas.
I understand why Clinton was reluctant to agree to any debates. Past performance suggests that she isn’t a strong debater to begin with. Going against a master reality TV and pro wrestling ringmaster like Trump has got to feel like walking into the Coliseum with nothing but faith in God to protect you from the lion’s maw. Trump knows all the tricks: how to deploy comical facial expressions as well as Jim Carrey, how to dominate others using body language, a laser-like ability to identify an opponent’s weaknesses and reduce them to rubble via ridicule (“Little Marco”). In an American presidential debate, 15-point white papers don’t count for jack. The best entertainer always wins.
During a 2000 debate Al Gore walked right up to George W. Bush, looming over him in what many watchers interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the Texas governor. Bush merely looked up at Gore and nodded, a droll look on his face. Bush was an idiot. Gore was a genius by comparison, a fact he proved by repeatedly drawing upon his superior knowledge of the issues and proposing infinitely more intelligent solutions to problems. But it didn’t matter. Voters thought Bush won.
Will Trump’s likely victories in the debates be enough to close the current gap between him and Clinton in the polls? Maybe. All I know is, anyone who says it’s all over is whistling past the graveyard.
It’s all about the debates.
A political cartoonist, columnist and writer, Ted Rall’s latest book is the graphic biography “Trump.” © 2016, Ted Rall
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