The first debate, and the vices of low expectations

Imagine the following exchanges on Monday night:

LESTER HOLT:  Secretary Clinton.  Please tell us ten specific things you would do to combat international terrorism, linking those specific proposals to a comprehensive plan for addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, which you should also link to a specific plan for addressing undocumented immigrants in America, and explain why the American people should trust you with these responsibilities given the fact that you were nearly indicted for transmitting classified national security information through a private email server and that people generally find you dishonest and unlikable.  And I will need that response in the form of a question.

[Clinton responds carefully and effectively to each point]

LESTER HOLT:  Mr. Trump, the next question is for you.  Please spell the word “dog.”

[Trump struggles at first, but ultimately spells the word correctly.  Trump is declared the winner.]

Though hyperbolic, this is the scenario that Clinton supporters, or at least those against Trump, fear: that so long as Trump can piece together a coherent sentence without using a racial epithet, he wins.  This is the low expectations game that has buoyed Trump throughout the election.  And the emerging conventional wisdom is that it benefits him enormously in the debates.  If that is true, Clinton must find a strategy that mitigates this advantage that Trump will have.

There is an interesting analogue to this.  In Season 4 of The West Wing, President Bartlet faces a re-election bid against the Republican Governor of Florida, Rob Ritchie.  Bartlet is seen as erudite, aloof, and pompous; Ritchie is viewed as unsophisticated and lacking in intellect but possessing a common touch with voters.  In “20 Hours in America,” Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and Deputy Communications Director Toby Ziegler clash over whether Bartlet’s smarts are a virtue or a vice against an opponent who, though not nearly as intelligent, appeals to the masses.  Critical of the Bartlet campaign’s efforts to make the election about their candidate’s ability to grasp the complexity of the issues, Lyman at one point says, “most people weren’t the smartest kid in the class.  Most people didn’t like the smartest kid in the class.”

In a later episode (“The Red Mass”), Press Secretary C.J. Cregg tells Toby Ziegler that she is convinced that the low expectations game heavily favors Ritchie.  She says, after being asked by others what would constitute a win for President Bartlet in the debates, “at this point, I feel like if, and only if, Ritchie accidentally lights his podium on fire does the President have a fighting chance.”  After Toby disagrees, she then elaborates:

C.J:  If the whole thing is that he can’t tie his shoelaces, and it turns out he can, then that is the ballgame.

TOBY:  And I believe he’ll have to do more than tie his shoelaces.

C.J.: Not much more.

Two episodes later (“Game On”), after the candidates have agreed to a single debate, and rather than take a softer and more collegial approach, the President demolishes Ritchie with a skilled performance that demonstrates his command of the issues and Ritchie’s lack of depth.  After the debate, in a bar up the road in California, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn meets with a congressional campaign operative named Will Bailey.  Bailey says to Seaborn, referring to Bartlet, “I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial.”  Seaborn responds:

“So did we.  But then we were convinced by polling that he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave at the debate.  And then that morning at 3:10 my phone rings.  And it’s Toby Ziegler.  And he says ‘Don’t you get it?  It’s a gift, that they’re irreversibly convinced he’s arrogant, because now he can be.’  If you’re guy is seen that way, you might as well knock some bodies down with it.”

Bartlet cruises to a landslide victory in the election.

Clinton’s dilemma is not fictional and probably more complicated.  Trump is sui generis.  But there is a lesson for her in this series of episodes.  There exists a conventional wisdom that she must be careful not to come across as tutorial, or condescending; that no one really liked the smartest kid in the class.  Maybe.  But no one really liked the dumbest kid in the class, either.  They didn’t really like the class clown.  And they didn’t really like the class bully.  Clinton’s challenge is to show voters that when picking a President, it’s better to have the smartest kid in the class than the dumbest; better to have competence than clownishness; better to have an aloof cheerleader than a belligerent thug.   And she has to do it all while not coming off like Tracy Flick.

In other words, if people already see her that way, she might as well knock a few bodies down with it.

But it’s still a risk, especially at a time when facts and issues seem to matter so much less than ever before.  This has been the Attitude Election.  And for all of Trump’s shortcomings, attitude has been his asset.  It’s how he knocks down bodies.

So, there’s an irony here.  Trump wants to Make America Great Again, but his latest pitch is, “it can’t get any worse, so what do you have to lose?”  Hardly an inspiring message.  Hardly an appeal to American greatness.  But it is at least consistent with his broader message that we are a second-rate country.  He wants to Make America Great Again, but his easiest path to the presidency is to simply satisfy basement-level expectations of his abilities.  Greatness, by being mediocre.  That’s the Trump method.  And it’s working.  Will it on Monday?

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