Op-ed: Taking debate

  • By Bob Franken
  • Saturday, September 10, 2016 6:54pm
  • Opinion

I wonder when the news networks will start running one of their irritating on-screen clocks counting down to the first presidential debate. Perhaps some of us will even be able to figure out that it’s on Monday, Sept. 26, at 9 p.m. Eastern time when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump go mano a womano for the first time.

They’re on for an hour and a half. It’s the first of three, as we all know, plus one for the major-party vice-presidential candidates, but this first one is huge. It’s a good thing “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt is moderating. He’s a total pro who most likely will let the show unfold on its own unless he needs to do an instant fact check. He will definitely be prepared.

In any case, Donny has a gargantuan advantage: He’s winning the low-expectations game. All he must do is not say something monumentally stupid or hateful. Hillary, who has gone to great lengths to present herself as wonkishly super-competent, must portray Trump as a dishonest, demagogic incompetent, if he doesn’t do it for himself. If he sticks with his pretend low-key demeanor, she has nowhere to go. Of course, it’s hardly certain that he can restrain himself, but if he does, it’s on her to make the sparks fly so he loses it and sets himself on fire.

It doesn’t matter if he takes positions that are patently ridiculous, as we witnessed on the NBC national-security encounter, where the two were grilled on different segments. Even when he was called to account for changing his story — which, unfortunately, was not all the time — he didn’t suffer any consequences. He almost never does. Even when his plans were demonstrably unworkable, even when he made it clear that he and Vladimir Putin are BFFs, he was able to tap-dance away. Meanwhile, she was forced to go through still another grilling about her emails.

And when it’s face-to-face debate time, we certainly can expect him to go after her credibility issues. If he does that, however, he once again leaves himself wide open for the charges that his dishonesty, uh, trumps hers. He can try to charge “pay for play” in her meetings as secretary of state with Clinton Foundation donors, but she can fire back with his more blatant quid pro quo deal with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, where after he provided campaign money, she dropped her state’s investigation of Trump University.

In fact, the whole Trump University mess is foul but fair game, as are his decades of bankruptcies and other smarmy business dealings. If he does go after her tendency to tell half-truths, she can clobber him with his long list of total lies. At any point, he might be goaded into abandoning his statesman masquerade and revert to the incendiary bigotry and outrageous insults that are his trademark.

His job, in other words, is to convince the undecided voters that he’s not the moronic monster she says he is. Her job will be to drive home that point without making a sympathetic character out of him. That’s what I said, without making Donald Trump “sympathetic.”

Both of them are working on their images in this final dash. Hillary, who has treated her traveling media like they were pond scum, suddenly has been making regular visits to their riff-raff section on her new campaign plane to take questions — and answer them. What a revolutionary concept.

Even Trump, whose tirades against reporters are part of his routine, has abandoned his “blacklist” of news organizations that were not allowed access. That would include The Washington Post. Now they can play, too, as the clock winds down to Election Day and the nation chooses which candidate its citizens like least. That ending is just a dream beginning of a future many believe is dreary. At best.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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