By Robert J. Guttman


September 23, 2016


John F. Kennedy most likely would not have become president if it weren’t for his first presidential debate performance against Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1960.

There were no more presidential debates until 1976.  President Gerald Ford really came out looking like he didn’t understand foreign policy with his comments on whether the Soviets controlled Eastern Europe.

In 1980, “There you go again” remarks by challenger Ronald Reagan made an impact and helped the former California Governor win the White House.  His “Are you better off than you were four years ago” comments also made voters aware of the poor economic conditions in the United States at the time.

And, Reagan reassured the American public he was healthy and in charge when he came up with his remark about his opponents’ age in 1984.  Even Walter Mondale laughed at the debate when Reagan came up with his zinger about Mondale’s young age and inexperience taking the edge off for people worried about Reagan being our oldest president.  Reagan went on to win the largest electoral landslide in American history winning 49 out of 50 states.

In 1992 Bill Clinton showed his charisma and political skills when he got up and talked to the woman in the audience about inflation and high grocery prices while President George H.W. Bush looked at his watch.

Al Gore seemed smug and condescending towards his opponent George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential debates. There were low expectations for Bush before the debate and he did better than expected.

In 2008, Senator Barack Obama showed he was a skilled debater and also displayed a knowledge of economics and the terrible financial downturn in the country better than his opponent Senator John McCain.

Obama had shown his skills in debate against Hillary in the long primary season where he told the former First Lady she was “likeable enough”.

Obama had a terrible first debate against challenger Mitt Romney in 2012 but came roaring back in the next debates to win re-election.

And, in the GOP presidential debates Trump was the last person standing as he spent his time criticizing his opponents with nicknames like “Little Marco”, “Low Energy Jeb” and “Lying Ted”.

Now a 100 million potential voters are expected to tune in to see the first presidential debate of 2016 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

Every political analyst, talking head on television and every concerned citizen has his or her own views and opinions on how Trump or Clinton can win the first presidential debate.

Most Americans are, literally, just tuning in for the first time to see the candidates and begin to make their final decisions on how they will vote in November.

Here are my two cents to add to the “huge” number of comments across America on how to be the decisive debater.

This week I held three mock presidential debates in classes I am teaching on the 2016 election at Johns Hopkins, Cornell and George Mason Universities.  The students playing Trump in all three classes were the most aggressive, outspoken and, of course, with no specific views other than building a wall.

The students playing Hillary were specific on the issues but not as lively.

In the real upcoming debate Trump has to appear sane for all the first time viewers.  These people have heard about Trump’s many nasty and often ridiculous and hurtful comments, but they want to see if the man is as bad as they have been led to believe.

If Trump can appear sane and polite and calm for an hour and a half he could win the votes of these Independent, Democratic and GOP voters and actually win the White House in November.

The question is: Can Trump actually be sane and stay on script without criticizing Hillary and being smug, condescending and not presenting any specific ideas?

Can Trump not be rude to Hillary and appear to be putting down America’s first major party female candidate?

If Hillary attacks Trump can he be grown-up enough to not put her down for her remarks?

Trump, who has no previous political background, needs to show he can be the leader of the country.

Trump needs to say at the very beginning of the debate that he will be releasing his tax returns before the election.

The real estate mogul needs to actually apologize to Gold Star families, disabled citizens and every other group he has so badly maligned during this very nasty campaign.

The GOP presidential candidate needs to actually put forward some specific plans on how to build up our economy and needs to say something specific on fighting ISIS and terrorism.   Do not keep saying “Let’s Make America Great Again”.

Hillary needs to show some warmth and humanity and show she is a real person and not just a policy wonk who feels it is her turn to be president.

Hillary needs to deflect the Donald with Reagan type remarks like “there you go again”.

The former Secretary of State needs to stay on the issues and show how Trump really has no idea what he is talking about most of the time.

The former Senator from New York needs to show that he shouldn’t even be on the same stage as her.  She needs to make Trump out as a fraud who doesn’t know the issues and has no specific plans to solve America’s problems.

Hillary needs to remain calm and specific and knowledgeable.  At the same time, she needs to show she is an agent of change and not part of the status quo.

Voters are indicating very loudly that they want change in the country and both candidates need to show they will bring about this change.  Trump will pound away during the debate that he is the outsider who can bring this change.

There will be days of discussion after the debate about who won and lost but Trump will have won just by being on stage with the former Secretary of State.  He will be elevated in viewers’ eyes just by being on stage with a former elected senator from New York.  He has no political background yet is being discussed as our possible next president.

If Trump remains sane and polite for an hour and a half he might win over many undecided voters.  If he stays the nasty Trump he has been so far he, most likely, will turn off the undecided voters and they will go for the more skilled politician Hillary Clinton.  However, the negative factor over her email scandal cannot be allowed to dominate the debate.

And, Hillary has a record to defend from Iraq to Benghazi.  Trump, who has no background in elective office, will not have to defend any votes he has ever recorded because none exist.

Never did I ever think that being sane for an hour and a half would win a presidential debate.  Strange political times we are living in these days!






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