Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, two very different people running very different presidential campaigns, have, not surprisingly, taken very different approaches to preparing for tonight’s debate.
“One looks to be hunkering down with homework, research, and rehearsals,” Monica Alba and Ali Vitali reported for NBC News, “while the other seems to be taking an on-the-fly casual approach to what could be the most important 90 minutes of the presidential election.”
You’ll never guess which candidate is which. No, of course you will.
Trump’s aides are probably underplaying his level of preparation to lower expectations, but on some level we all know in our hearts that it’s true — Trump is not sitting around studying briefing books and making sure he has accurate and detailed answers on everything that might conceivably come up. We’ve seen him in debates and high-stakes interviews before, and he almost certainly is going to more or less wing it and figure that it doesn’t really matter if that means he says things that are false or offensive.
Clinton is the one doing prep work. She’s prepping because the debate is important, and preparing for important moments is what sensible people do. And something that’s tended to get lost amid the frog memes and whatnot of 2016 is that working with a competent team to read briefing books and release white papers is a crucially important part of being president.
It’s a big, difficult job in which mistakes can have catastrophic consequences for the lives of millions of people, and where you don’t get to declare bankruptcy and start over again if you mess up. You don’t have to walk into the Oval Office knowledgeable about every issue under the sun on day one to be successful — nobody’s ever met that standard, and nobody ever will — but you do need a credible team, and you need to be able to get up to speed.
This difference will show up at the debate, allowing Clinton to give factually defensible and politically tenable answers to a range of questions on weighty matters. That’s hard to do, and Trump won’t be able to pull it off on the fly, which is why he has recently been working the refs to explain that debate moderators should let him get away with lying.
On Fox & Friends, Trump says moderator's job isn't to fact-check: “I certainly don’t think you want Candy Crowley again." pic.twitter.com/rBo6cgpzyd— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) September 22, 2016
Moderators really aren’t fact checkers or competition judges, and from a basic aesthetic point of view it’s not that hard to speak confidently on various topics if you don’t feel constrained by the truth. So maybe Trump’s approach will work and his lack of preparation won’t “matter” to voters or impact the outcome of the election. But if he wins, the fact that he is the kind of guy who can’t be bothered to prepare for a crucial debate most certainly will matter.
You need to prepare for big moments, care about getting the details right, get informed on unexpected subjects, and bother to spend time and energy on things voters don’t particularly care about — because if they blow up, there will be a huge disaster. Being president is hard, and while it obviously has its share of fun, ego-gratifying moments, it also necessarily entails lots of somewhat tedious stuff that Trump clearly has no aptitude for.
Trump is running a profoundly lazy campaign
One thing Donald Trump has taught us all over the course of the 2016 campaign is that a lot of things we might have thought mattered to winning elections turn out to not matter much.
Previous major party nominees have built teams of professional staff and circles of formal and informal advisers who have helped them craft policy blueprints across a wide range of issues. They have courted recognized authorities — typically well-regarded veterans of government service — to vouch for their competence to deal with various important matters. They have built large field operations. They have crafted communications teams that respond to damaging allegations leveled against their campaign in the media. When their factual claims are widely refuted, they work to develop new, more defensible claims that can nonetheless support their key political and policy goals.
Trump has done basically none of that, and so far it’s worked out pretty well.
Fundamentals-based models of the election suggest we should expect a close race. And Trump and Clinton are in fact giving us a close race, despite the fact that Trump, in some respects, barely seems to be trying.
This is a fascinating discovery and also a rather disturbing one. After all, the main reason we might have thought that building a team — a large, high-quality one capable of executing complicated tasks and developing policy ideas — is important to winning votes is that doing these things is essential to being an effective president.
Clinton is running a boring, normal campaign
Clinton, meanwhile, is running a presidential campaign as we have traditionally understood the term.
She is already personally familiar with a number of issues from her extensive career in the field of public policy. Beyond that, she has a team whose job it is to assimilate ideas from experts around the country and fashion them into what they take to be politically viable policy ideas.
Many of these ideas relate to issues that most people don’t care about but that are nonetheless deeply important to a large number of people. And almost nobody actually cares about the details of any of these policy ideas, but they do care, fundamentally, if their lives get better or not. And to make their lives better, Clinton will need to deploy specific policy levers. So she is working with people to try to identify what those levers are and what should be done with them.
The idea is that this gives the candidate something sensible and accurate to say in response to questions from the public, from the press, from donors, and from interest groups and advocacy organizations.
Donald Trump briefly had a small policy team, but it collapsed over the summer when the whole team quit because he wouldn’t pay them. But while he hasn’t found any money to spend on a policy staff, his campaign has spent $6 million renting his own plane, an aircraft that is both unusually large and unusually old for a campaign jet, leading to fuel bills that are much higher than Clinton’s.
Being president is hard
The central conceit of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is that being an effective president is pretty easy and the United States has gotten disappointing results in the 21st century because of unfathomably incompetent leadership.
How to manage the economic dislocations of globalization? Trump’s answer is simple: He’ll take our existing bad trade deals and replace them with unspecified new and better ones. How to keep immigrants out? Build a wall. How do you pay for the wall? You make Mexico pay. Trump’s plan to beat ISIS is to tell “the generals” he wants them to draw up a plan to beat ISIS. He’s also going to replace some (or all?) of the existing generals with different, better generals.
This is, I am sorry to tell you, not going to work. Coming up with actual, workable ideas and then implementing them is difficult.
Republican Party elected officials seem to have convinced themselves that Trump will be okay on this score because Paul Ryan can just write the bills and have Trump sign them, the way ceremonial presidents in parliamentary republics like Germany and Ireland and Israel do things.
But the United States isn’t a parliamentary republic. Changing policy in the United States integrally requires the work of a cast of literally thousands of presidential appointees scattered throughout the executive branch, working (or not) under the guidance (or not) of the president himself.
Ryan can absolutely get Trump to rubber-stamp his plan to cut taxes for the rich and pay for it by taking away poor people’s food and health care, but the day after that happens, Donald Trump still has to run the government. To do that, he needs an extensive team of high-quality people who are capable of collaborating on big projects. And he needs to be able to personally sort out sensible ideas from ridiculous ones.
Unpredictability is fun television
The thing about Donald Trump is he used to host a pretty successful reality TV show. TV news shows used to like having him on to muse about politics. He brought record ratings for presidential primary debates. He’s good at speaking confidently off the cuff, and his lack of interest in preparation, accuracy, or consistency makes him very unpredictable, which lends drama to the proceedings.
Normal presidential debates are a little bit dull, because most people either are not interested in politics or are interested enough to be broadly familiar with the candidates’ main talking points. What the candidates do, mainly, is repeat their main talking points, because they are trying to reach the relatively small number of people who care enough about politics to tune in for a debate but not enough to have watched earlier media appearances.
Hillary Clinton is even more dullness-prone than your typical candidate, since she’s dispositionally hostile to the kind of big think, jokes, or soaring rhetoric that politicians sometimes deploy to leaven the policy talk. She is a very practical, precise, detail-oriented thinker and speaker. This is great if you care a lot about the thing she’s talking about at the moment, but it isn’t a thrilling show. It is, however, pretty useful in the governing process.
Trump’s approach — in which he might make up a new tax plan or some wild unsubstantiated charge about Clinton or fake facts about his own past, or say something racist, or really do anything — is much more compelling. It’s a chaotic emotional roller coaster, and I am looking forward to watching it.
And to the extent that you are primarily hoping for a president whose term of office will feature lots of crises, scandals, surprises, tension, and drama, with the attendant persistently high cable news ratings that implies, then Trump will be an excellent president. Personally, I have a rambunctious toddler at home who provides me with all the drama I need. I would, in turn, like to provide him the best possible odds that the country will still be in one piece when he’s in kindergarten.