Will Presidential Debate Add Fuel to the Trumpster Fire?

Going into Sunday night’s debate in St. Louis, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was always presumed to have the advantage. Now the most debate-prepared candidate in the modern era is poised to meet perhaps the most politically damaged one ever seen.

It’s not just that Trump’s horrific remarks boasting, in the most demeaning way, of his self-proclaimed right to sexually assault women are problematic for a presidential campaign; it’s that his opponent is the first woman ever to win the presidential nomination of major party, and a talented, disciplined debater.

What’s often lost in the talk of the 2016 presidential campaign is that the reason the Trump candidacy succeeded in the Republican primary was the candidate’s overt misogyny as a selling point. It was always assumed he’d be facing off with a Democrat poised to be the first woman president; his candidacy was the very expression of the backlash to that possibility.

Oh, sure, there’s the hatred toward brown- and black-skinned immigrants, the smearing of African-Americans, the demonizing of Muslims. Combined with the misogyny, the whole Trump campaign is designed as a backlash force against the legacy of President Barack Obama—the first black president, whose father was both Muslim and African—and his likely successor, a barrier-breaker in her own right. But it was always the misogyny that was the driving force of the Trump train. From the moment Trump clinched the nomination, the 2016 presidential campaign became a referendum on the role of women in American society.

Now Trump will have to answer for his woman-hating speech with his female opponent looking on, a camera recording each of their expressions. She will no doubt address his remarks—made on a hot mic in 2005 as he bantered with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush as he awaited his cue for a guest appearance on a soap opera—and attempt to do with them what she did in the last debate with her oppo-drop of Trump’s racist and sexist comments about Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Oh, how that rattled him!

And let’s not forget how he’s responded when challenged by other women. During a Republican primary debate, when asked by Fox News host Megyn Kelly to respond to a litany of negative, dehumanizing remarks he made about the appearance of various women, Trump answered: "Honestly Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me." In other words, “How dare you! I’m an important man, and this kind of talk is talk is my prerogative!” Within a day, Trump said of Kelly that she had it in for him, implying her question was posed because of her menstrual cycle: “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

In contrast, look at how Hillary Clinton answered a challenging question posed to her by a veteran at the so-called Commander in Chief Forum hosted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association in August, a town-hall event in the style in which tomorrow’s debate is planned. There, Clinton showed that she could handle taking a question from an audience member who displayed a measure of disdain for her. A former naval flight officer, referring to Clinton’s use of a personal email server for the conduct of government business during her tenure as secretary of state, asked her, “Secretary Clinton, how can you expect those such as myself who were and are entrusted with America’s most sensitive information to have any confidence in your leadership as president when you clearly corrupted our national security?

“Well, I appreciate your concern and also your experience. But let me try to make the distinctions that I think are important for me to answer your question,” Clinton replied.

“First, as I said to [debate moderator] Matt [Lauer], you know and I know classified material is designated. It is marked. There is a header so that there is no dispute at all that what is being communicated to or from someone who has that access is marked classified.” She continued to describe the designation of the material that had been communicated via the server, and concluded her speech. You may agree or disagree with her explanation for her decisions, but she stayed cool and laid it out.

Likewise, Sunday’s debate is a town-hall style event, with about half of the questions to be asked by audience members. Known for her listening skills, Clinton’s best campaign events have always been in the kinds of settings that allow her to hear a voter’s concerns, and then respond. 

During her campaign for the U.S. Senate, I traveled with the press corps on her “listening tour” throughout upstate New York, and saw her win the hearts of struggling people in rust-belt cities and rural burgs. Because she listens so intently, people at these events seemed won over even if they entered in a cloud of skepticism.

Trump is known for listening to no one—not his advisers, not the pollsters. He listens to nothing but the voice in his head.

Trump has yet to demonstrate that he can meet a challenging line of questioning with anything other than hostility. That may work for him when confronted by a member of the media, journalists being generally held in low esteem by members of the public. But if he goes ballistic on a voter who asks a tough question, he’ll be seen attacking a regular person, whom television viewers tend to regard as a stand-in for themselves.

If challenged by a woman about the scandal that has legions of notable Republicansincluding former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—calling for him to withdraw from the race, who knows how Trump will react? So far, he has indicated that he will counter with assertions about former President Bill Clinton’s behavior with women, and Hillary Clinton’s denunciations of the women who accused her husband. Trump is already tweeting about it, and even promised, in the non-apology apology video he posted on Facebook, more of the same for the debate.  But women voters really don’t like it when Trump—or anybody—try to taint Hillary Clinton with her husband’s past.

As I write, a discussion is reportedly taking place among leaders of the Republican National Committee about whether the RNC has the power to remove Trump as its presidential nominee. It may not, and Trump has vowed not to withdraw from the race. But the Presidential Debate Commission is controlled by the two parties. Whether the RNC produces its candidate for the forum will be telling.

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