Voters hunger for change, but they are wary of the agent of that change. That, in essence, is the overriding theme of this election, one that defined the long primary season and one that is at stake in Monday’s debate. All the other issues we’ve heard about, from secret tax returns to secret speeches to Goldman Sachs? Sideshows. Change and competence are they only things that matter; they are the keys to victory.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have a firm grip on their core supporters, folks who are either so committed to their candidate (or who so intensely dislike the other candidate) that their allegiance is unwavering. To them, neither the upcoming debate nor the two to follow will matter much. But the debates will matter a great deal to the more centrist, non-partisan voters who, neither firmly left nor right, are still uncertain about who they should support. Those are the persuadables. And Monday night, both Trump and Clinton have a chance to win them over.
Trump has tapped into the same anti-establishment, us-versus-them anger that propelled Bernie Sanders’s surprising run against Clinton. Both Trump and Sanders argued the economy was “rigged,” a notion that, according to one poll from late spring, resonated with 71 percent of Americans.
So how does Trump get those folks on his side? He needs to do three things on Monday.
First, he needs to convince them he really is one of them. On its face, the notion that a billionaire real estate developer is one with the masses is hard to swallow. But Trump has been remarkably successful so far in making that case. Partly that’s because of his penchant for saying things that are so offensive or politically incorrect that he clearly is not part of any conventional establishment. He has been inadvertently helped as well by the array of well-known figures who refuse to support him, including prominent Republicans such as Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. Their disdain for their own party’s nominee only further plays into Trump’s claim that he is not beholden to anyone.
Second, he needs to make the case that Clinton is a protector of the establishment. Clinton’s distinction as the first female nominee of a major party certainly does set her apart from the crowd, but in other respects it’s hard for her to escape the tag of “insider.” After all, she’s been first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state. Resumes like that are not the stuff of revolutionaries.
Third, and most difficult, Trump needs to show that he is able to handle the job. There are echoes of the 1980 presidential election here. Back then, ex-actor Ronald Reagan was running against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Prior to that season’s only debate, Reagan was widely caricatured as an extremist dolt. His calm demeanor and avuncular manner on stage opposite Carter belied that, however. Reagan ended up winning by a landslide.
Still, Reagan had been governor of California for eight years. Trump, by contrast, has no political experience. And far from calm and avuncular, he so far has come across as intemperate and rash. To change that, Trump needs to surprise, to somehow present himself on stage as a man of substance, maturity and gravitas. It’s a tall order, though, in large part because Trump has never successfully conveyed those qualities before.
On Monday, Clinton too has three tasks.
First, she needs to rebut the Trumpian notion of an America in decline. The crux of Clinton’s argument is that the “rigged” economy is less an issue of insiders versus outsiders than of Republicans versus Democrats. She needs to remind viewers that the economic doldrums bedeviling Americans are in large part a hangover of the 2008 Great Recession, an event that happened on the GOP’s watch. The path back has been difficult. But things today truly are better than they were eight years ago. To that end, Clinton can trumpet a September report from the Census Bureau with some remarkably good news: 2015 saw historic declines in the poverty rate and historic increases in median incomes.
Following on that success, Clinton’s second argument is that, rather than blowing up the system, we should build on it. She needs to embrace Obama’s legacy — and given the president’s high approval rating, it would be a smart embrace indeed.
Finally, she must hammer away at Trump’s credentials, reinforcing doubts about his ability to preside on the national and world stage. One would think this would be easy to do. Yet Clinton needs to be careful. In 1980, Reagan genially dismissed Carter’s attacks on his competence by saying, “There you go again.” To win, she can’t allow Trump such an easy and glib way out.
Both candidates know the stakes ahead of them. Persuade the persuadables and the election is theirs.
This column was first published by Cognoscenti on September 23, 2016.