Sunday, September 25, 2016

Please, Be Presidential

We are now less than 36 hours from the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I have heard and read many opinions about what each should do to win, but I think I have narrowed it down.

First and foremost, I think, the voters want to hear what the candidates want to do about the issues confronting this nation. We know there are some pretty serious problems — and pointing fingers at the other guy won't solve them. There will be time to assign blame later.

I've used this analogy before, but it is still appropriate. If a house is burning, your first priority is not to determine why the fire began or how it was started. Your first priority is to put out the fire. The frustration that so many voters feel is rooted in this.

The voters don't agree on what should be done. We usually turn to our leaders to guide us through uncharted waters, but we need to know where would–be leaders stand on the issues before we can decide which one we wish to follow.

We've lived through plenty of mud–slinging campaigns in recent decades, and this one is already shaping up to be the dirtiest of all. I have made my peace with that, but I think I speak for nearly all voters when I say, please, leave it at the doorstep when the debates are in progress. She can go back to calling him a racist and a sexist in her TV commercials and campaign speeches, and he can go back to calling her a shrew when the debates are over.

But, please, be presidential in the presidential debates.

Everything else I am going to say is merely a subhead to that. That is your lead paragraph (when I worked on newspapers it was sometimes spelled lede).

Clinton's huge lead in advertising spending in recent weeks has yielded no gain in the polls. In fact, she has been losing altitude. Why? Because every advertisement I have seen — and we usually don't see too many presidential advertisements in Texas because the outcomes of presidential elections here have been foregone conclusions for 40 years — has been negative.

We have seen some ads here this time, and they have all been negative, telling the voters why they should not vote for the opposition, not why they should vote for the candidate sponsoring the ad.

Why, you may ask, are independents now the largest voting bloc in the United States? As a group, we share little. We don't agree on everything, but I think most of us would agree on this: We're tired of choosing which candidate to vote against. We want a candidate we can vote for. (That's not as grammatically correct as I would like, but it gets the message across, doesn't it? Are the candidates listening?)

Yes, being presidential would help.

Besides that, there are some things both candidates can do to make listeners more receptive to their messages.

Hillary has been in the national spotlight for nearly a quarter of a century (longer than that for me, but I lived in Arkansas when her husband was governor). That is far more than long enough for attitudes about her to harden except among the youngest of voters. To win the debate she needs to demonstrate to people that the experience of which she boasts has taught her things that make her more trustworthy and that she is more honest than she has been. Voters need to believe she will tell them the truth in a crisis. Speaking in lawyerspeak (i.e., "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is.") or effecting a faux Southern drawl (having grown up in the South, I can spot one of those at least a mile away) won't do it.

Trump has been in a spotlight, too, but not a political one until recently. Attitudes about him in that regard are still fairly fluid, at least in comparison to Clinton.

But in Trump's relatively brief time on the national stage, he has made some truly awful remarks. He has made some intriguing policy suggestions, but he is viewed by many as something of a loose cannon, a nationalistic bully. In all honesty, it reminds me more and more of 1980, when Democrats constantly warned voters that Ronald Reagan would start a nuclear war if he won the presidency. Then, in a single debate, Reagan reassured viewers that he wasn't such a bad guy, that he would be responsible if elected, and he beat President Carter by 10 percentage points.

It is unlikely to the point of being impossible that either Trump or Hillary can win by the kind of landslide margins that Reagan received in either of his two elections.

But Trump's challenge is similar. He must reassure voters that his image is inaccurate, that he isn't crazy or trigger happy.

It won't be easy for either one. Both must give us things we haven't seen from them before.

Whichever one can do it will get the upper hand in the campaign.

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