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What Hillary Clinton needs to do at tonight’s debate

In the eyes of his detractors, Donald Trump is so obviously unsuited to the presidency that there is a persistent frustration that Hillary Clinton hasn’t yet “put him away” and a persistent fantasy that with just the right line of attack, she could expose him as a sham and induce his entire movement to vanish into a poof of smoke.

The presidential debates — with their high stakes and one-on-one drama — are a natural focal point for these fantasies. If Clinton plays it just right, the theory goes, Trump will be demolished once and for all. If that doesn’t work out, it will be either because Clinton blundered or because the moderators let him get away with murder.

The key to success for Clinton is to drown out these fantasists and work on a goal that is more modest, more obtainable, and fundamentally more important: talk about herself and cast a positive light on her vision for the country. Take a shot or two at Trump, of course, and arrive with a canned zinger or three ready to unleash at an opportune moment.

But Clinton needs to recognize that her toughest opponent in this race isn’t Trump — it’s the public’s unflattering perception of Hillary Clinton. It’s a perception that’s difficult to turn around at a time when the media only has bandwidth for Trump stories and the occasional email disclosure. But that’s what makes the debates so important.

It’s a unique moment when the cameras will be pointed at Clinton and the American people will be watching regardless of what she talks about. She ought to talk about what she talks about best — her earnest, somewhat dull, very diligent policy ideas for ameliorating concrete problems in the lives of the American people.

Clinton’s problem is Clinton, not Trump

The inordinate media attention on the “Trump supporter” as a social type has tended to create an exaggerating impression of the number of Trump supporters out there. But pollsters find that under 40 percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of Trump, while 59 percent have an unfavorable impression.

If Clinton could win the votes of the 59 percent of people who have an unfavorable view of Trump, she would end up slightly outperforming Ronald Reagan’s 1984 vote haul, generating a landslide win on a scale we haven’t seen in generations. Which is just to say that while making people think worse of your opponent is always useful in an election, Clinton is well into diminishing returns territory here. The reason she’s not currently projected to win a landslide isn’t that obdurate “Trump supporters” need to be shown the error of their ways; it’s that lots of people who aren’t Trump supporters aren’t yet committed to voting for her.

There’s probably nothing she can do to get back the mid-60s approval ratings she enjoyed as secretary of state, but her ability to garner such high numbers once upon a time shows that she’s not inherently disliked. Barack Obama’s approximately 50 percent approval ratings show, similarly, that there’s no particular reason an “establishment,” “insider” politician identified with the status quo needs to be deeply unpopular.

A unique opportunity

Clinton’s team is, of course, broadly aware of this.

And indeed, while they will concede that the campaign has been more focused on the case against Trump than on the case for Clinton, they say — quite rightly — that when they do earnest, basic, policy-focused stuff, the press ignores them. Trump is so light on policy that anytime he does make a policy announcement it’s front-page news. Then he’s graded on a curve like the most troublesome kid in the second-grade class.

His ability to put anything together at all wins him polite applause. Clinton can release a comprehensive program for vocational training or housing policy and it’s like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it.

That’s what makes the debate a unique opportunity. News channels that have been airing the Trump Show nonstop for a year are committed to airing an episode featuring Special Guest Star Hillary Clinton. The audience is sure to tune in. And even if Clinton stands up there and talks earnestly about her policy ideas, they aren’t going to cut her off.

In any situation other than a debate, Clinton can only get attention by launching vicious new attacks on Trump. In the debate, she’s guaranteed attention. It’s her chance to talk about her ideas and remind people of the positive aspects of her public persona — she’s diligent, attentive, well-informed, collaborative, and sincere in her interest in the work of governing.

It’s been difficult for this stuff to break through during the chaos of 2016, and the debates are the best chance to do it.

Three good ways to hit Trump quickly

Of course, you can’t go all the way through a debate without getting in some digs at your opponent. Clinton just needs to put a premium on ways to do it quickly, so she can save airtime for the more important mission of getting people excited about her agenda.

  • Call him “Donald”: For whatever reason, Trump seems weirdly obsessed with getting his subordinates to refer to him as “Mr. Trump” or “Donald J. Trump” at all times. The fact that it’s bizarrely easy to get under Trump’s skin has been an important Clinton campaign theme, and referring to him as “Donald” seems like a potentially promising way to show that off.
  • Work the “Crooked Hillary” angle: Trump is either going to call her “Crooked Hillary” or he isn’t. If he doesn’t, Clinton should call him out on it immediately — saying it goes to show that, like a lot of name-calling bullies she’s known over the years, he’s a coward, too afraid to say it to her face, too afraid to talk about the wall with the president of Mexico, too afraid to face a fraud trial about his fake university, and too afraid to release his tax returns. If he does, Clinton should call him out on it immediately — saying it shows that he’s a name-calling bully, and like a lot of name-calling bullies she’s known over the years he’s a coward, too afraid to … you get the idea.
  • Apophasis: This is the fancy Greek word for things like, “You know, it would be too bad if we spent the whole time talking about the multiple upcoming fraud trials related to Donald’s fake university when we really should be talking about how to make college tuition more affordable; I have a plan to make public universities tuition-free for middle-class families and to hold administrators accountable to make sure kids are really learning and graduating.”

But in all seriousness — it’s easy for liberals to while away the hours fantasizing about attacks on Trump, but it would be a mistake for Clinton to get too invested in it. Trump is already profoundly unpopular, and one of the most reliable ways for Clinton to get attention is to do a big speech denouncing Trump in new and more colorful terms. What Clinton needs to do is tell her story.

Clinton has a good story to tell

The good news for Clinton is that beneath all the madness of the 2016 cycle, voters still see the economy (not undocumented immigrants massacring their children) as their top concern. And Clinton’s campaign is full of reasonable economic policy ideas.

These ideas — raise the minimum wage; tax the well-off to invest in infrastructure, education, and health care; expand the production and use of clean energy; ensure equal pay for women; etc. — are not that exciting to full-time professional political journalists, because they’re not especially novel. But they’re not especially novel because Barack Obama has been talking about them successfully across two presidential election cycles.

Normal people don’t pay close attention to politics, they aren’t easily bored by repetition, and their primary current association with Clinton is her email habits — not any of her policy ideas.

Talking about those ideas — popular ideas — and her career championing them will do much more to help her cause than landing new punches on an already deeply unpopular Trump.