A few weeks ago, all Democrats could talk about was their concern about complacency heading into the general election. Their candidate was up big in national and state-by-state polling and they worried that their voters might not be mobilized enough to pull down-ballot Democrats over the finish line. Hillary Clinton even started talking about how she wouldn’t take anyone’s vote for granted.
It turns out, though, that public opinion is dynamic, and they needn’t have worried so much about the big margin Clinton held over Donald Trump. The gap has closed enough that the candidates’ first debate Monday night could end up being a turning point in the race.
I generally believe we put too much stock in the outcomes of debates between candidates who could handle the presidency with relatively equal steadiness. But, leaving aside their policy differences and the general swing of the nation in a national populist direction, Trump still hasn’t proved himself fit for the office of the presidency. His detractors contend that he’s said and done things that make it impossible for him to ever appear presidential.
But the debates will help determine that essential question for the remaining undecided voters — and give reason to others to head to the polls or stay home.
With that in mind, here are five key objectives for Hillary Clinton in Monday’s opening round of the debate season:
1. Tell us what you’ll do for the country
For more than eight years, Hillary Clinton has tried, and largely failed, to tell the country what she’d do with the power she seeks. It’s not enough to have a position paper on every policy that has the buy-in of the center-left, the middle and a small sampling of the center-right. She needs to tell us what’s in her heart and her gut. What drives her? What would she prioritize as president? She won’t be able to do all of the things she wants. She’ll get blocked in Congress, and her party may lose seats in the midterms. But she’ll get some version of a couple of big items if she campaigns on them and wins. What are they, and how do they tie in to what American voters need and want?
2. Let baby Donald hide behind your skirt
Trump spent the primaries attacking the machismo of his Republican rivals. Jeb Bush was “low energy” and Marco Rubio was “Little Marco.” They felt boxed in by the bully and didn’t know how to fight back. How will Trump react if Clinton points out that the schoolyard tyrant is really a frightened insecure little boy and that it’s evident in his mixed-up rhetoric? He wants to “bomb the s— out of” enemies while withdrawing from the world. He doesn’t think American workers can compete with foreigners. He’s worried about Mexican immigrants taking over the American economy and culture. He thinks he needs guns and nuclear weapons to win fights. He doesn’t sound strong, he sounds weak. Clinton should offer to let him hide behind her skirt when she’s president. Then, she can sit back and watch him implode.
3. Destroy Trump’s economic message
Trump’s economic policies amount to a conspiracy theory masquerading as an explanation of how trade and immigration have destroyed an American economy that is actually the strongest in the world. He won’t admit it, but no one who seriously deals with the economy or the federal budget thinks his plans add up to anything but more of the debt he claims to hate. How will he grow the economy while he’s purging low-cost workers and placing new levies on the Chinese goods that working-class Americans buy at Wal-Mart? How can he cut taxes by $4.4 trillion, pare only the domestic discretionary portion of the budget and end up with anything but more Chinese-held debt? His plan wouldn’t strengthen America at the expense of China, it would strengthen China at the expense of America. Republican economists and budget writers are bending over backward to say his new-and-improved economic agenda is better than the $12 trillion hole he had promised earlier in the campaign. Trump isn’t just wrong in terms of wanting to slash taxes for the wealthy and government programs for the poor — that’s a partisan argument — he simply doesn’t understand the fundamentals of economic growth or federal budgets. She should clean his clock here. Lecture him on it. Give a class in Clinton economics. There’s no need to lean on the records of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. She should simply demonstrate the obvious: She understands the economy better.
4. Talk tougher on national security
This is where Democrats get into trouble. Most foreign policy and national security experts subscribe to the basic idea that diplomacy and trade, coupled with a powerful military, make us safer. Democrats, including Clinton, tend to get lost in the nuance. There are no easy answers about what to do about terrorism or the mess the U.S. has made and been unable to clean up in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Trump preys on the complexity by lying about his support for the Iraq and Libya invasions and by promising that he’ll end terrorism by closing off U.S. borders to Muslims — or, in the sanitized version, to people from certain parts of the world. The key here is to distance from Obama with a pretty simple message that boils down to the mantra of the Cobra Kai in the film “Karate Kid”: Strike first, strike hard, no mercy. The Clinton administration wouldn’t always deploy force, but when it does, the enemy won’t know when, where or what hit them. Trump would hide from the world; Obama is trying to keep one foot in and one foot out. There’s a middle path that actually uses American force where and when it’s necessary, but only reluctantly and only when it will be decisive.
5. Stop talking in paragraphs and pauses
Clinton’s schedule suggests she’ll spend several days in debate preparation. That’s a waste of time. She already speaks in white-paper paragraphs. She’s the only politician who sounds more rehearsed without a teleprompter. She should react in the moment. She doesn’t need a briefing book to name the president of France or a canned answer about easing the burden of college debt. It’s a little dangerous for her natural sarcasm and pedantic tendencies to show in a debate, but not nearly as perilous as sounding robotic. She should take the last day or two off and relax. She should think about what her presidency would mean to some of the people she’s met on the campaign trail. She should talk about what they’ve had to sacrifice and how it inspires her to be their voice — the most powerful voice in the room — in the Oval Office. She should give voters a reason to believe that she’s actually thinking about them, not about how to convince them that she’s thinking about them. That can only come from a real place. And, no matter how true it may be that she’s in it for the people she believes she can help, she still suffers from a perception that nothing she says is earnest. This is her best chance, and one of her last chances, to dispel that notion.