How to Debate Trump

By The Editors

With the first presidential debate on Monday, we asked past contributors and friends of the journal for their thoughts on how to debate a candidate like Donald Trump. Here’s what they responded.


William A. Galston, Wall Street Journal columnist:

Like it or not, gender politics will shape public reaction to the debate. If Hillary Clinton raises her voice or tries to talk over Donald Trump, she will pay a price. Her best bet is to listen patiently, even if Trump goes on too long, and then reply pointedly but coolly, more in sorrow than in anger. Her weapon of choice should be the stiletto, not the club, along the lines of Carly Fiorina’s brief, effective retort to Trump’s remarks about her personal appearance. If he plays the bull, she should be the bullfighter. She should not be the first to attack. When he attacks, she should respond factually and non-defensively before turning the tables. Hillary Clinton is certain to win on substance, but this won’t matter if she loses on style.

Marvin Kalb, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University:

With a smile, get under his skin, and never lose your cool.

Isabel Sawhill, Brookings Institution:

I think the moderators should want to help swing voters make a more informed choice. These voters understand that Trump has many flaws but they believe our politics is dysfunctional and corrupt and that Trump can change that whereas Clinton, they think, is part of the establishment, and thus part of the problem. The moderator should ask Trump how he intends to change Washington, especially in light of his having no political experience and not a lot of enthusiastic support from Republicans in Congress. Clinton needs to explain why she isn’t part of the problem, how she would work with Congress, and who her allies are.

Another swing group is suburban white women, especially those who are libertarian-leaning Republicans (fiscally conservative but socially liberal).  A question about whether government should control access to abortion or whether it should be left to women and their families to decide would be of interest to this group. Exactly what Trump thinks on this question isn’t clear so follow-ups may be needed or the audience reminded what he has said in the past.

Clinton needs to keep her answers short. The more air time Trump gets, the more likely he will be to shoot himself in the foot or demonstrate how little he knows. If necessary, she needs to ask the follow-ups.

Simon Rosenberg, NDN:

Primary job in this first debate is to focus on telling your story. Make your case. Folks have their doubts about Trump, but they need to feel better about you. Smile, have fun, be optimistic and upbeat, talk about how great and good the country is, and how much better it can be. Some time spent on political reform, how Washington itself will change during your tenure, would be welcome. And when he goes low, you go high. Do everything you can to ignore him, staying relentlessly focused on the people watching at home. He craves attention. Don’t give it to him.

Michael Kazin, Professor at Georgetown University and editor, Dissent:

Dear Hillary: Since securing the nomination, you have run almost entirely as the anti-Trump. But outrage against and contempt for your opponent are not enough anymore. On Monday, make sure you let Americans know what the hell you want to do if you get elected. A much higher minimum wage, a more progressive tax code, pre-K child care for all, moving to a green economy, a public option: These are all excellent and quite popular ideas. But how many Americans know you want to enact them? Talk about these changes with clarity and passion. Give us a reason to vote for you and not just to stop an arrogant, entertaining egomaniac from moving into the White House.

Theda Skocpol, Professor at Harvard University:

Clinton’s chief challenge is to convey crisp economic and national security messages, not bogged down in details: how she will build on the Obama recovery to spread benefits more fully to all workers and families; and how she will do the calm and determined work to defeat terrorists abroad and at home.

She needs rapier, short come-backs to Trump accusations and insults. If he complains, she is accusing him of something true (aiding ISIS, birther in chief): “Just telling it like it is, Donald!”  This mocks his anti-PC shtick.

If he lies a lot, as he will, “I count five lies in that statement – about X, X, X, X and X”; then pivot to her own message.

And find ways to needle him about ignorance (how would grabbing Iraq’s oil do anything to ISIS dependence on Syrian oil?) and about his failed business and chartable record. But don’t bog down in fact-checking. Highlight stuff that needles him and cues press for post-debate fact checking.

Above all, refuse to re-mire in the email stuff. Just say “I made a misjudgment as I have repeatedly explained, and have learned important lessons for the future. Now, let me talk about my plan for keeping Americans safe…”

Katha Pollitt, The Nation:

I wish I knew! Perhaps a facelift and a voice transplant would help. Maybe she could promise to have Henry Kissinger deported to Nauru and also bake cookies for every man in America. Maybe she could have Jill Stein up there leading a chorus line of porn stars—single-payer health care plus blow jobs! That might get the youth excited.

Our media portrays this incredibly well prepared and yes, progressive candidate as some kind of semi-criminal nagging granny, while the racist misogynist liar sails on. I wonder if anything she can do in the debate will change that storyline.

Jared Bernstein, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities:

I think the best way for Clinton to approach the debate is to pose the simple, overarching question: who do you trust to “have your back”? She should filter every argument—from the challenges posed by the global economy to anxieties around terror—through that lens. Level with the voters and let them know that grueling months of a fractious and uniquely uninformed campaign are finally ending, and it’s time to choose. She’s far from perfect, but objective people, including the treasured “median voter,” will recognize that, while she’s a flawed candidate, she’s a committed, experienced fighter who’s not there to promote her brand or because of an outsized ego. She’s there to fight for you, regardless of your religion, color, or country of origin. To the extent that leads her into some policy discussions, fine. But the point is much less the policies than the fact that she’s the only one on that stage who’s really going to try to help you stay safe and get ahead.

Robert Reich, Professor at University of California, Berkeley:

She should show her intelligence and reveal his ignorance. It won’t be hard. She might ask him a simple question about foreign or domestic policy, such as “I’m very concerned about the investor-state dispute mechanism in the Trans Pacific Partnership. Are you?” Or “I believe the Earned Income Tax Credit phases out too early, do you?” When he delivers non-responsive answers, ask him if he knows what she’s even talking about.

She should also expose him as a fraudulent businessman. This, too, should be relatively easy. When Trump bloviates about his business acumen, she should turn to him and say “In 1976, you said your net worth was 200 million, and now, according to Forbes, it totals $4.5 billion, although you say it’s $8 billion. But if you’d just put the $200 million into an index fund in 1976 and reinvested the proceeds, you’d be worth $12 billion now. How do you account for such astoundingly bad business performance?”

Felicia Wong, Roosevelt Institute:

On Monday night, Hillary Clinton must change the tone of the race. Voters are despairing, and despair is bad for turnout, which is key to the kind of turning-point election that 2016 should be. So Clinton must pivot from attacking Trump—which makes her part of the problem—to a clear and hopeful vision. Voters understand her victory would be historic and that she is well-prepared, but they do not connect her to a more prosperous American future.

The good news is that Clinton has all the tools she needs. She has already said we can rewrite the rules of our economy—rightsize bloated monopolies and financial institutions; create good jobs and raise wages; and invest in public goods like education and infrastructure—to create sustainable growth. In the last weeks of the campaign, she must focus relentlessly on that vision of practical progress that fundamentally improves our economy.

Henry Aaron, Brookings Institution:

I believe that she should, at every possible opportunity, starting with her opening statement, speak to those Americans who have been losing out economically—because the industries in which they work are declining or because they have lost out to foreign competition or because they live in depressed areas—and say, in a quiet and conversational way, that the reason she is running for President is to help turn around their fortunes—by spurring increased economic activity, by providing direct assistance, and by helping them find jobs. Specific references to specific people, if done well, can help.

Content and tone both count. But tone is key. Every viewer should feel that she is talking directly to them. She has three registers: the large auditorium “shout”; “I can be forceful” earnestness; and conversational. The first is jarring; her voice is at its least compelling in that venue. The second feels as if it is performance. Only the last can persuade people that she is talking to them.

Ian Millhiser, Center for American Progress:

Let Hillary be Hillary. Embrace the wonk. Pick several issues—college debt, infrastructure, the heroin epidemic, etc.—where she has clear and detailed plans and he has nothing. Then lay those plans out in sufficient detail to emphasize just how prepared she is to tackle the job of the presidency.

And then, having laid out her solution, end with a question: “So that’s my plan to deal with college debt, Donald. What’s yours?”

Jordan Smith, author of Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-Presidency:

Try and provoke Trump into saying something extraordinarily offensive and/or stupid—but don’t depend on that happening. Never wise to depend on your opponent self-destructing.

Richard Lempert, Professor Emeritus at University of Michigan:
  1. If you are certain Trump has lied, call him out on it. “Donald that’s a lie. The truth is…I look forward to the fact checkers telling the American public which one of us is telling the truth.”
  2. Do not begin any answer with the wonky “I have a plan for that.”
  3. Tell the American people that the numbers of domestic terrorist attacks have been thwarted with the help of America’s Muslim community. People who feel demonized do not want to cooperate with authorities. In demonizing Islam and its American followers, Donald Trump has placed us all in greater, not lesser, danger.
  4. Point out that Donald Trump’s plans consistently help him and his family more than they help most people; your plans typically cost you and your family money, a price you are willing to pay to help those worse off than yourself.
  5. Choose your words carefully. Use hedges like “I think” or “it seems.” You are being pecked to death by a press that pulls apart your literal language, neglecting context and the message you intend to convey.
Christopher S. Parker, Professor at University of Washington:

In a debate with someone like Donald Trump, a bully for whom facts remain a minor irritant, one must remember at least two things. First, your target audience is people on the fence, the undecided. People committed to one side or the other will tolerate whatever their candidate says: They’re hardcore partisans. However, the people in the middle will be won over with appeals to reason and a more measured approach. Attempting to “out Trump” Trump, i.e., engaging him in the type of schoolyard rhetoric that would make a middle-school bully blush is a mistake. We saw how that turned out for Marco Rubio.

Second, one must also be firm. People don’t want a leader who’s been victimized. Trump knows that making Hillary Clinton appear weak plays into traditional stereotypes about women and relative weakness. In sum, it’s a fine line HRC must tread: She must not attempt to match Trump’s bellicosity, while remaining firm. Yet, these are skills required of a good President. Trump can’t do it, so she must.

Sam Seder, host, The Majority Report:

In all but ignoring Trump, Clinton should, in a dismissive tone, brush off each of his attacks on her as Donald just being “sarcastic” or silly. Clinton should then proceed to present concise recitations of her most popular policy prescriptions. She must keep the fight on her terrain. Clinton should address Trump’s attacks with seriousness only when they are directed at anyone but herself (immigrants, POTUS, etc.), exemplifying her dominance and willingness to defend others.

Eric Alterman, Professor at Brooklyn College:

I think she should not say anything at all, just bring two signs with her. One should say “Lie!” and the other one should say “Nuts!” and just hold up one or both every time Trump speaks.

Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research:

A friend  had the best strategy. He suggested that Clinton should go up to Trump for the standard before debate handshake, wish him well, and then look down and say “you really do have small fingers.”

The Editors of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas are Michael Tomasky (Editor), Jack Meserve (Managing Editor), and Delphine d'Amora (Associate Editor).

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