My friend Joel Silberman was on MSNBC talking about what to expect at the debates. He talked about how important it is for the media to not lower the bar for Trump.
This isn't Dancing With the Stars, or The Voice or America's Got Presidential Talent. We're talking about the leader of the free world so let's ask some real questions and hold them accountable.
Monday's debate should be a place where both candidates get asked serious questions and are expected to give serious answers. The performance should be judged by how well each answers those questions. But that is so BORING! The mainstream media knows that, so they do everything they can to make the debates more dramatic and exciting. "Live questions from social media! Live audiences to cheer and boo! Gotcha questions!"
Trump won his debates partly because he's been running for Entertainer in Chief and has delivered. (The last funny Republican was Bob Dole, so the media knows Trump is a rare bird.)
The media played along with Trump as Entertainer in Chief because it's more fun. Serious policy answers are boring and don't get ratings.
Trump knows he isn't going to win a debate based on having good policy answers, he'll win because he has the best zingers and "In your face, liberals!" one-liner positions on everything. People remember, "Well, there you go again." from Reagan, which makes sense because as an actor he knew how to deliver a well-timed line. This is Debate Theater not a debate.
My question for Monday is, "Will Trump pay any price for not having deeper answers to serious questions?"
Some people in his camp might think he needs to show knowledge about the issues, they will be ignored. That stuff is for liberal nerds and policy wonks who read blogs and know the names of Supreme Court Justices. His voters just want to hear zingers and see swagger.
Roger Ailes, the un-incarcerated serial sexual harasser, is advising Trump. He's not going to tell him to bone up on Aleppo. He'll advise him on how to say the things his Fox audience loves. He'll remind him, "You don't need to satisfy Holt and the liberal media, they are already in the tank for Hillary. You need to satisfy your base. Show them you are the alpha and are in control."
(I've watched a bunch of clips of Trump on The Apprentice. He knew how to control the moment. Now some of that is editing, but his confidence in the setting is what comes across. Even if his reasoning, when you look at it later, is clearly capricious and loopy, he still "wins the interaction" especially if there is no one there to follow up and question him. )
Karl Rove and Karen Hughes believed, and showed time after time with Bush, that "It's better to look and sound strong than to actually BE strong." When they didn't want to talk about a plan, they classified it. When it didn't work, they changed what the goals were. Details are for underlings. It's about the look and the attitude. You want policies and positions? Sure, if they can fit on a tweet. That, Trump can do.
Which Media will show up?
When Tamron Hall asked what to expect from Trump, Joel responded. "That's the wild card, isn't it? Which Donald shows up?" That will depend on which Media shows up. Will it be the media that don't feel it's their job to point out lies and errors, as Chris Wallace of Fox News said? Or will it be the media that understands the winners' policies will mean life or death to millions? And when the Media gets their answers will they accept them without follow up or demand more?
In the distant past, the metric for success by the journalist moderator were good questions that let people see the knowledge, competence and character of the candidates so voters can decide. I think the last time we saw that was when the League of Women Voters were in charge. If we have a moderator who sees the job like that, then Hillary will nail the debate with knowledge and competence.
If that is how Holt approaches the debate, Trump will try to move to be light and funny. He'll kick the policy details down the road. If Holt then doesn't ask for more detail or accepts vagaries, Trump wins because Holt has let Trump set the rules.
Hillary understands Debate Theater, she knows how to play the zinger game. Zingers actually can be very powerful. I hope someone is writing some new ones for her. She's come up with a few good ones in the past. "A man who can be baited by a tweet" and "Delete your account."
Here's the deal, we need the media that shows up to hold each candidate to the same, "Millions of lives are in the balance" standard. Because that is the reality. If they don't, and let him control the moment and the depth of the debate, Trump will have a real shot at winning the debate, and perhaps the election--and that's not entertaining at all.