In the eternally awesome 1995 comedy “Billy Madison,” Adam Sandler portrayed a lovable but underachieving dunce, Billy, who, to prove himself to his father, has to go back to school and complete grades 1-12 before he can take over his father’s hotel company, Madison Hotels, and save it from the likely (and evil) successor, Eric.
In one memorable exchange during an academic competition, Billy, who excels at hobbies such as burning dog poop on his neighbor’s front door step (the author knows nothing about this…) is asked to expound upon “reflections of society in literature,” namely the impact of the industrial revolution on writing.
His circular and utterly nonsensical answer earned him a deservedly hostile rebuke from the principal, which concluded thusly:
“Everyone in this room is now dumber from having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
It was hard not to feel the same way after hearing the last 45 minutes of Donald Trump’s responses during Monday’s first presidential debate.
Donald Trump was clearly not ready, stylistically or substantively. As evidenced in the primary debates, preparation has never been his forte, winging it is, but against an opponent who makes up for her many scandals, her charisma deficit, and her utterly vapid campaign by over-preparing, Trump will have to prepare, or at least show some discipline, if he doesn’t want to be crowned The Biggest Loser of 2016.
In the month leading up to the debate, after Trump exercised some discipline and read off a Teleprompter, he had pulled even in many national polls and took the lead in many swing states, including Ohio, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina. Since his lackluster debate performance, those leads have been forfeited, and Hillary has regained some polling momentum.
But all is not lost for The Donald. Importantly, Hillary did her absolute best on Monday night, helped by an actively partisan moderator who conspicuously avoided every newsworthy topic that fueled Hillary’s polling nosedive: her illegal email practices; the Clinton Foundation slush fund; Bill’s scandals; and the FBI’s questionable immunity offers to Hillary’s cronies.
Also, Hillary can’t do any better, and can’t be any luckier or funnier, no matter how much she prepares. She can only do worse, much worse; she’s still Hillary after all, with enough baggage to sink the Titanic.
Conversely, it’s hard to see Trump doing worse, for a couple reasons. First, in the GOP primary debates, Trump did show some improvement over time, and at times he reigned in his worst habits when it behooved him to becalm himself. Now is one of those times.
Second, since the debate, Trump has said he will attack Hillary more in the next debate, which could work if he attacks in the right way on the right issues, and ignores his gut instincts, which invariably lead him to attack the wrong issues in the wrong ways. Hot tip to the Donald -- avoid talking about yourself entirely: no more rambling about your money, your businesses, Miss Universe pageants, your tax returns, your work on the birth certificate issue, or your fights with your employees or contractors. That’s all defense. There’s no shortage of Clinton dirt to highlight, so go on offense.
Ted Cruz, a masterful debater, offered to assist Trump with the debates, and Trump would be wise to accept his help. Returning to the Billy Madison theme, Cruz could be – in a weird way—Trump’s Veronica Vaughan, the attractive school teacher who gets Billy Madison to focus, clean up his act and make an effort at graduating on time.
It will take a Herculean effort for Trump to resist his Pavlovian impulses to obsess over the irrelevant and walk into every trap laid by Hillary or the next moderators. And it will be especially tempting for Trump next time around.
The second encounter, on October 9, is a town hall style forum where half the questions will be posed by attendees and the other half by the moderators, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News Anchor Martha Raddatz. Safely assuming Cooper and Raddatz won’t bring up Hillary’s scandals, it will be up to Trump to segue each question he’s asked to the ones Hillary wants to avoid. (see above)
If Trump does his homework, takes it seriously, and stops screwing around on Twitter and playing defense on issues he can’t win, he may, like Billy Madison, emerge victorious. If not, he will have failed America by empowering a Clinton, with nothing to console him, except maybe a Snack Pack.