WASHINGTON – Debating Donald Trump will never be conventional — a reality just underscored by him seemingly inviting the former mistress of his opponent’s husband to sit in the audience Monday.
And it goes far beyond the last-minute drama over Gennifer Flowers. Trump is a uniquely unorthodox candidate, capable of saying just about anything — making impossible claims and changing policy from one sentence to the next.
So how do you debate someone like that?
The Canadian Press asked three veterans of debate preparation what advice they’d be offering Hillary Clinton:
Name: Stuart Stevens
Worked with: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney
Strategy: The hurry-up offence
A football fan who’s written a book on the sport, Stevens uses a gridiron analogy for his preferred strategy. He says Clinton’s primary task is to expose Trump as a buffoon and an ignoramus. To do that, he suggests using speed to wear down Trump’s intellectual defences.
He compares it to football’s hurry-up offence. He urges Clinton to repeatedly steer the conversation to Trump, keep him talking, and not worry so much about convincing the American public of her own likability.
“I would start asking him questions: ‘Here’s a question for Donald Trump.’ (And again), ‘here’s a question for Donald Trump.’ And if he doesn’t answer, when it comes back I’d say, ‘Donald Trump didn’t answer. So I’ll ask ask again,'” Stevens says.
“I would hit him in the first response, and I’d hit him in the last response, and I’d hit him with just about every response in between. I would do the football equivalent of a fast offence. I would just hit him, try to speed up the debates, run a really fast tempo. Trump doesn’t have a lot of stamina. He got very tired in these other debates at the end. … My mission would be to get in his face, and stay in his face. I’d put him in the pain locker, and shake it around.”
Asked whether she should focus on questions of policy, or character, Stevens said: “Everything.”
“I would just look at him and say, ‘You’re a ridiculous candidate for president.’… He couldn’t tell you how a bill becomes law. I would go right at the essence of him — he’s a guy who doesn’t know anything.”
Name: Scott Reid
Worked with: John Turner, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff
Strategy: Set traps, avoid them
He favours a different approach. Reid believes Clinton should spend time presenting her policies to Americans. Economic opportunity is the No. 1 priority of American voters, and Reid says it’s unfathomable that Democrats have failed to convey their policies in a compelling story.
While she does this, Reid says, she should set traps. Trump tends to go bonkers when someone downplays his wealth — he’s sued a writer for suggesting he habitually exaggerates it, and once declared it the only off-limits subject for a comedy roast.
Reid says she should drop little references to that while talking: “I would be like, ‘You know, Donald, I think you don’t want to reveal your tax returns because you don’t want people to know you’re not very rich.’ He will go off….
“He is like a Grade 6 child. There are some fights he can’t lay off of. … If she can bring it up early — say in the first half-hour of the debate — he, I guarantee you, will raise the issue persistently throughout the debate. … He will obsess.”
This may be Clinton’s gameplan. Reports suggest her campaign has studied Trump’s psychology, and given a front-row seat to another reality-TV billionaire, Mark Cuban, who has questioned the accuracy of Trump’s net worth. That’s what prompted Trump to suggest he might invite Flowers.
That being said, Reid would worry about facing him.
“I would be petrified. … He is a creature of pure broadcast television. … So I’d be very, very frightened that at any point he could come out with a line that absolutely devastates Clinton and just leaves her, frankly, smoking like a blown-up hulk.”
He also worries about possible Trump traps.
For example, if Trump brings up her husband’s adultery: “(Which) he’s almost certain to — in ways that are unusual and vulgar. … She’s got to be unblinking … she’s gotta be just, ‘You know what, Donald, people are wondering how they’re gonna put their kids through school. You wanna talk trash, you wanna be People magazine, go right ahead — but we’re running for president.'”
Name: Dimitri Soudas
Worked with: Stephen Harper
Strategy: Tickle him
When facing a witless brute, Soudas suggests, be the opposite — witty and poised. He says Clinton is among the smartest people he’s met in politics, and should let that show.
“Differentiate yourself from your opponent as the stateswoman that you are. … You have the gravitas, and you have a track-record in public life. Don’t go into the gutter like Trump absolutely will.”
He proposes an approach similar to Reid’s, with one added suggestion — humour. Soudas suggests teasing Trump: “Tickle him.” If foreign policy comes up, he says, maybe joke about Trump’s experience being limited to beauty pageants. If it’s education, make a wisecrack about the worthlessness of a Trump University degree.
“Do it in a funny way — not mean-spirited,” Soudas said.
He said she wants to leave audiences with two takeaway messages: “She looks like my president. And she has a nice sense of humour, she makes me laugh, and I’m comfortable with her.”