So here we are.
In a campaign that has featured many unexpected blockbuster developments, here comes a massive moment that has been expected all along: the first actual debate between the two major party nominees.
From the time it became clear that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would be the two candidates on this stage, the narrative has been that it was her election to lose, and that Trump would need a stellar performance to have the remotest shot at beating her November 8.
Then real voters, and real events, intervened.
Plenty of real Republican voters have shed their NeverTrump baggage and realized he is the only person on the planet who can prevent a Hillary Clinton presidency. The epiphanies of Senator Ted Cruz and talk show host Mark Levin, among others, have now reduced the Trump-haters on the right to an odd little club of sad figures sitting in rooms filled with Evan McMullin yard signs and Gary Johnson coffee mugs. The rest of us are arming for the battle to save our nation.
Donald Trump is an imperfect leader for a conservative movement, but Republican primary voters made it clear their first choice was not a wave of textbook conservatism. If it had been, Ted Cruz would be prepping for tonight’s debate instead of fielding questions about his change of heart about Trump.
(For the record, a Trump endorsement was always the natural final destination for Cruz. He had many misgivings about what a Trump presidency might bring; they were sufficiently profound that he needed more time than some other former rivals to realize that misgivings about Trump are the product of speculation, while the horrors of a Hillary presidency are real and imminent if Republicans fail to unite. For every NeverTrumper angry at Cruz, there are five Cruz voters thanking him-- and probably God-- for this pivot. The talk of worthy primary challenges against him was always silly, and now grows even more preposterous as he bonds with his Texas base and his fans across America, nearly all of whom actually want to beat Hillary Clinton.)
The voters who put Donald Trump on tonight’s debate stage have shown a preference for conservatism on many things, supplemented by an old-school populism delivered with a street-brawler’s diction. Hillary Clinton has logged dozens of debates, but never against anyone like Trump. Sixteen defeated GOP rivals can attest to the challenges he places before an opponent.
But it is unwise to expect some roundhouse Trumpian knockout punch tonight. Clinton is not one to wither. She held up fine when matched with the silver tongue of Barack Obama, she coped ably alongside the disheveled energy of Bernie Sanders, and she will probably emerge unbloodied by the blows of Trump.
But this does not mean he cannot score big points tonight. The first thing to remember about tonight’s debate is that it is not his prime goal to reduce Hillary to a sobbing heap; it is to come across as reasonable and plausible as the leader of the free world. That prospect might have drawn skepticism a month ago, but the fact is that Trump is competitive and even leading in several vital states because that is precisely what he has done on the campaign trail for several weeks.
There is nothing Hillary can do tonight to markedly improve her image. There is nothing she can say that will cause millions to suddenly find her trustworthy or likeable. But many viewers watching tonight will have consumed a steady diet of the Clinton campaign and its media henchmen portraying Trump as some bigoted, reckless monster. If he can emerge at the end of 90 minutes having displayed poise, a decent grasp of issues, a statesman’s demeanor and a few well-placed rays of humor, it will be a positive first impression for millions of voters who have until now consumed only the opinions of people who despise him.
Could he mess up royally? Of course, and so could she. But I’ll bet neither happens. She is too cool a customer, and he has enjoyed the continuing applause meter of rising poll numbers. So if there is no “There you go again,” no “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” and no “Oops,” the likelihood is that the campaign storyline continues without much of a waver. And since that storyline has been a pendulum swing toward Trump since mid-August, that is to his benefit.
Make no mistake. The candidate who needs a consensus win tonight is Hillary Clinton, and without a Trump gaffe, it is hard to see how that happens. She and her people have been saying for months that they crave the chance to get on a debate stage against Trump. It’s tempting to think that’s just another lie, but her campaign might just be arrogant enough to actually believe that they have cornered the market on fitness to serve, problem-solving acumen and even basic decency. Either way, he probably knows roughly what to expect from her, and she has no idea what to expect from him. Advantage him.
But a superior Trump debate performance will not happen by default. It will depend on walking some fine lines with skill. He would do well to keep this advice in front of him on the lectern:
-- Be aggressive but measured. Your existing fans will be there for you in November; the job tonight is to attract people who have been wondering about you and who are not thrilled with her.
-- The other audience you need to massage consists of steadfast constitutional conservatives. Graciously welcome the Ted Cruz endorsement, noting that both you and he are forgiving and forgetting the incendiary back-and-forth of months ago and now share focus on the prime directive: beating Hillary. But make sure you mention—often—that you see the presidency through the lens of constitutional fidelity, and that you look forward to working with leaders in the Cruz mold to protect our rights by elevating Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia.
-- Don’t mention her health. If she looks and sounds strong and healthy, it will look desperate; if she falls into another coughing fit, the issue will take care of itself.
-- Refer often to the contempt she has shown for millions of Americans with the “basket of deplorables” comment and other attacks on you, which are in fact attacks on the millions of voters who elevated you. Punctuate this point by saying that while she insults your voters, you would actually like to welcome hers. Ask Democrats if they can genuinely say a third Obama term would be so great for jobs, the economy, and national security.
-- Speak directly to blacks and Hispanics. Say that your appearances in minority communities are not some momentary stunt, but the beginning of a change in Republican politics, where the GOP sincerely asks people of color for their votes. Assert boldly that the strong borders you seek will be of benefit to American citizens of every race.
-- Make clear that you respect the concerns over the recent controversial police shootings, but that under no circumstance will a Trump administration tolerate or make excuses for rioting. Show a willingness to make progress in an atmosphere of goodwill, which does not include attacks on people or property.
--As a deal-closer, make clear that Trump the campaigner is one thing, and President Trump would be somewhat different. Both are you, but the path to the nomination was a busy scrum that required some sharp elbows, and the path to November will require some sharp retorts to the slanders sure to come from the Clinton campaign. But stress that once you are in the Oval Office, you will put that “Make America Great Again” slogan into actual practice, working amiably with people willing to share your vision, but fighting hard but high-mindedly against those who would take us farther to the left or saddle us with more of a stagnant status quo. With regard to the world stage, invoke John F. Kennedy, the last Democrat president who had this right: that we will “support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
There, that should do it. No charge.