That’s why Donald Trump still has a chance to turn things around — in the debates. And that’s why, despite competing for ratings against the NFL and playoff baseball, there will be plenty of drama when Trump and Hillary Clinton square off this fall.
But even here, I’m sounding like I’m the announcer of a “Monday Night Football” blowout game who is rationalizing, “It’s a long shot, but if the Redskins score a touchdown, go for a two-point conversion, and then execute an onside kick, they have a chance. …”
To be sure, we in the media have a rooting interest in keeping things close (why else would you read our columns, watch our shows, or click on our ads?), but it is a fatal conceit to assume we know how things will end.
For one thing, there is still more than a month left before the first presidential debate even happens.
Believing in Trump has always required a certain amount of magical thinking (a “year of delusional thinking”?), but Trump has almost always failed to reach his potential.
And yes, despite reports that he is now engaged in debate prep sessions, it seems highly unlikely that Donald Trump is spending long hours, holed up in some room with Roger Ailes, watching game footage and rehearsing his lines.
But who knows?
If one were writing a novel or a screenplay, one might imagine a scene where Roger Ailes whispers to his flailing candidate, “What if we surprise everyone and win the whole damn thing?” Melania (or campaign manager Kellyanne Conway) would then deliver the pep talk launching an epic training montage. Seeing this as his own swan song, Ailes — you know, the guy who prepped Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush for presidential debates! — hatches an idea to lower expectations by concealing Trump’s improving debate prowess until game day.
The narrative I have just laid out for you will probably not happen. Just as you can’t “cram” for an SAT, it’s hard to master economics, foreign policy, etc. in a month, a year, or even a decade. No amount of pushups will help (no matter how many times you play a Survivor song in the background). Hillary Clinton, for all her faults, has been immersed in the world of policy wonkery for her whole life; Trump has not.
What is more, the presidential debates will very likely be formatted in ways that are inherently skewed toward Clinton’s strengths (and away from Trump’s). The danger for Trump is that, lacking applause lines and crowd participation (which benefited him in the primary debates), his insults will fall flat. Then, forced to actually discuss byzantine policy ideas for minutes (which may seem like hours), he will fall apart.
“The danger for Trump is that, lacking applause lines and crowd participation … his insults will fall flat.”
Even the fact that there are three debates diminishes the chance that Trump could land a lucky knockout.
Reagan had a bad first debate in 1984, but (with the help of Ailes) rebounded. President Obama delivered an anemic performance in his first debate in 2012, but (with the help of Candy Crowley) bounced back in the second one. Clinton can probably afford to have a bad debate, too.
This is a trilogy. Does anyone remember that Frazier once beat Ali?
Team Trump must either have a strategy to win multiple debates, or limit their number. The former would involve the kind of discipline and strategy that (so far) Trump has never been able to execute. And the latter only works if he vanquishes his opponent early.
Whether it’s Iron Mike Tyson or the aspiring Iron Lady of American politics, the favorite usually wins. Donald Trump’s back is now against the wall. But nothing is preordained. That’s why we play the game.
Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.