And so, here it is. The first debate. And at the core of all the reaction afterwards about who "won" will be the question of expectations. Did one candidate fail to meet expectations? Did another exceed expectations? Theoretically, a candidate could do much better in the debate, but if their opponent beat "expectations" then that could, bizarrely, make him or her the seeming-winner.
It seems pretty clear that the candidate with the most expectations -- and by far the most -- is Hillary Clinton. In large part that's because she has vastly more experience as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, and Donald Trump has...well, none. (And in part, too, that's because the Trump campaign has been playing the Expectation Game by downplaying his preparation to the point of it being almost non-existent.)
In one regards, this is odd, since whether or not Donald Trump "won" his GOP primary debates, it's pretty clear that that he swamped his opponents, whereas Hillary Clinton battled Bernie Sanders very closely. So, you might reasonably think that expectations for Donald Trump should be higher. But they're not. The expectations are that Hillary Clinton should do much better, because she's more knowledgeable.
But here's the deal. Here's what I think about expectations and where those expectations should sit.
I believe that if someone wants to be President of the United States and has become the nominee of their party, then my expectations are that that candidate should be absolutely, completely, fully 100% prepared and ready in a debate for the presidency.
In fact, I'll go a step father. "Well, he's new to this" or "She has more experience than him" or "He doesn't know as much as her" should not only carry zero weight in lowering expectations...it should be a significant detriment. Being new or inexperience or ill-informed is not a chit one should be able to cash in when trying to become President of the United States. The job not only is incredibly hard, it's phenomenally important. You're running to become Commander-in-Chief of the American Military, the Chief Executive of the United States, and the Most Powerful Person in the World. "Don't expect me to be ready or even all that good" when it comes to defending why people should vote for you just doesn't even begin to cut it. We don't just "expect" you to be good. We demand it. And by "we" I don't mean everyone in the United States -- but the entire world.
I expect both candidates to be brilliant, I expect both candidates to know exactly what they're talking about, and I expect both candidates to show how they stand up under pressure.
That's what I expect. And I hope it's what everyone expects. It should be.
And if someone doesn't expect that from a candidate for President of the United States, then you might want to consider not voting for them because the job is far too important for amateurs.
Will that happen? Will both candidates be spot-on ready for the Oval Office tonight? Well, the devil is in the details. Here's what I think will happen.
I think that Hillary Clinton will relentlessly, politely, and pointedly chide Donald Trump for saying things all night that are wrong -- whether they're wrong because of being lies or he's just misinformed -- because she knows he is insecure, and so thin-skinned he can't take criticism, and the more she tells him he's wrong, especially the more a woman tells him he's wrong, the greater chance of his head exploding.
I think, too, that Hillary Clinton will not get baited by Donald Trump into over-reacting or be caught off-guard by a question she can't answer. I say that because she stood up to Republican Congressman out to do everything they could to crush her for 11 hours, and was investigated by the FBI who reported that she did nothing to justify any charges, and she has been slammed for 30 years by the Republican Party, and there she is, standing on the debate stage, the first woman nominee for President of the United States.
I am sure, as well, that not everything Hillary Clinton says will satisfy everyone, even her supporters because she's a flawed candidate. She'll have some answers that aren't wondrous and will seem evasive. And other answers that show a sweep breadth of knowledge and insight. And across the aisle, Donald Trump will show his deep lack of awareness on so much that is critical for a president to know. And not only will not everything Donald Trump says will satisfy everyone, but much will concern many. That said, his most devoted acolytes will love everything he says because if they haven't been turned off by now by his racist attacks on Muslims and Mexicans, and by his misogynistic attacks on women, and by his insults against war heroes and Gold Star mothers and the disabled, and by his refusal to provide his tax returns and on and on and on and on, there's no reason to think they won't love every single world out of his mouth, whether the truth, factually wrong, or an intentional lie.
And I don't think that the moderators will bring some of these problems up during the three debates, but if they don't then Hillary Clinton will.
I think Donald Trump will be glib and theatrical and occasionally make an effective point, mostly about threats to America -- something we're all aware of, not Donald Trump alone -- but overall during the course of all three debates (not just this first alone) to be unable to withstand the glare of reality, because ultimately he doesn't know more than the generals, is not smarter than everyone and does not have a secret plan for anything, and when there's no foundation to your building, it will show. I think that over the three debates, they will show that Donald Trump is not ready to be president because he has demonstrated throughout the campaign he actually doesn't know about what a president must know. And over three debates, with an opponent pointing this out repeatedly, I don't think he'll be able to hide that. But that's why there are three debates. We'll find out.
And that's critical to remember: this is not a "one debate" dance. There are three, so there will be a cumulative effect of them all. I don't think this single debate tonight will be a blow-out for anyone, the greatest impact will build over the three. But -- if it is a blow-out, the only candidate I can see that happen for is Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump showing the world, one-on-one, that he is too scary bad an alternative. I don't think that will happen tonight, but it's far, far, far more likely to than it happening to Hillary Clinton.
And it's also critical to keep in mind one other thing: what's important here is not what I think about who did well, or what Republicans or Democrats think. Those opinions and votes are pretty locked-in. What matters is the 5-10 percent of moderate undecided voters who are still trying to figure out who they think should be President of the United State. And I think one other group matters: Republican voters who are uncomfortable with their support of such a racist, misogynist as Donald Trump, but can't bring themselves to vote for a Democrat, especially Hillary Clinton. And if there's enough problematic on stage that gives them cover to know they can't vote for this Republican and justify it in a way others would understand, they are far more likely to decide that they just can't vote for a Republican, than a Democrat committed to Hillary Clinton deciding at this point that they can't vote for her.
But mostly...back to the beginning of all this -- I expect the absolute best from both candidates. And if anyone believes that low expectations is a selling point to be President of the United States, I expect them to be disillusioned by the real world.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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