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Finally, A Presidential Debate That May Be Interesting And Consequential (Forbes.com) September 20, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

After more than 50 years of presidential debates, we all know the plot. Two candidates spend untold hours reading briefing books and engaging in mock debate practice sessions so that they can stand on the same stage for a couple of hours, seem knowledgeable and likeable, and most important, not make any big mistakes or gaffes. It’s a pitcher’s duel with a lot of defense or a football playoff game about field position and punting, but no airing out the long ball.

And let’s face it, what do you remember about presidential debates of the past? Mostly the gaffes: Richard Nixon sweating in his light-colored suit, Gerald Ford saying Poland is a free state, Michael Dukakis giving a mechanical policy answer to a question about his wife being raped and murdered, or Al Gore sighing and invading George W. Bush’s personal space. All the preparation is about being conservative, taking no risks and making no mistakes. A candidate rarely wins a debate but a gaffe can mean that a candidate loses one. Think of Gary Johnson unable to say what “Aleppo” is or Rick Perry failing to remember which cabinet departments he wanted to eliminate—but all on a much bigger stage.

But throw out the script for 2016 because, thanks to Donald Trump, we may have the first unpredictable, interesting and consequential presidential debate ever. With the first debate this Monday night, Trump has yet to engage in practice debates and may not do so. Instead, he prefers a series of luncheons and conversations with his kitchen cabinet—people like Rudy Giuliani and Roger Ailes—in which talking points and lines of attack are discussed. Donald Trump is the closest we’ve seen to an unscripted candidate. With lots of reality television experience, he embraces the medium and his ability to go on the fly. He talks in sound bites, attacks with jabs, and generally enjoys creating a bit of chaos wherever he goes.

Of course Trump’s higher risk approach can more easily lead to gaffes or mistakes but somehow they don’t seem to hurt him, they just become part of the chaos in which he operates so comfortably. He calls opponents “lyin’ Ted” or “little Marco,” he complains of taco trucks on every corner, or says John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured. But somehow he shrugs these things off and moves forward. He’s not exactly made of Teflon, but he keeps throwing enough against the wall that nothing really sticks, since he’s on to the next insult or jab.

Trump’s biggest challenge will be whether he can fill the time with anything positive about his own policies. A 1.5 hour debate with just two candidates is very different than the stage full of fellow Republicans he has debated before. Now a sound bite will not be enough, a jab is over too quickly, a bumper sticker campaign platform will not fill the time. But he and advisor Roger Ailes surely know this and I would expect him to be ready with the some new details and ideas. Trump is even going out to his supporters to help him figure out what to say, crowd-sourcing his debate prep.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton is preparing with the standard briefing books and practice sessions. She will be the most rehearsed and prepared candidate in history, while Trump will be the least. She is a careful lawyer, while Trump is more of a bar room brawler. Don’t expect a knockout, but someone might actually win this one on points. At the very least, like everything else about campaign 2016, it will break the mold.

To read the column at Forbes.com:

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