Traditionally, debates are mostly boring affairs, where we’re lucky to get a highlight or two. But, we know what we’re getting, going in. A couple of boxers who jab a little bit, and largely stick to the script, while answering questions the best they can.
Even though candidates aren’t afforded an opening statement anymore, they use their allotted time for their first answer to put the debate into the context they want. In 2012, for example, the first question went to President Obama. It was, how would he create jobs.
Here’s his answer:
Well, thank you very much, Jim [Lehrer], for this opportunity. I want to thank Governor Romney and the University of Denver for your hospitality.
There are a lot of points I want to make tonight, but the most important one is that 20 years ago I became the luckiest man on Earth because Michelle Obama agreed to marry me.
And so I just want to wish, Sweetie, you happy anniversary and let you know that a year from now we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people.
You know, four years ago we went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Millions of jobs were lost, the auto industry was on the brink of collapse. The financial system had frozen up.
And because of the resilience and the determination of the American people, we’ve begun to fight our way back. Over the last 30 months, we’ve seen 5 million jobs in the private sector created. The auto industry has come roaring back. And housing has begun to rise.
But we all know that we’ve still got a lot of work to do. And so the question here tonight is not where we’ve been, but where we’re going.
Governor Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes, skewed towards the wealthy, and roll back regulations, that we’ll be better off. I’ve got a different view.
I think we’ve got to invest in education and training. I think it’s important for us to develop new sources of energy here in America, that we change our tax code to make sure that we’re helping small businesses and companies that are investing here in the United States, that we take some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way that allows us to make these critical investments.
Now, it ultimately is going to be up to the voters — to you — which path we should take. Are we going to double on top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best? And I’m looking forward to having that debate.
As we now know, President Obama bombed the rest of that debate.
But this opening statement was a good one – for a traditional debate. It set the lens for how President Obama wanted people to view his own policies, and how he wanted people to view Romney’s. He defined the two visions. After all, this was going to be, largely, a policy debate, like the entire campaign had mostly been.
This year, in this debate, policy is nowhere to be found. Larger visions for where to take America aren’t to be found. Hillary may try to make an opening statement like the one above, but it will be a mistake, because Trump is going to do anything but try to have that kind of debate.
Instead, Hillary needs to set the parameters for how people view the debate itself, and the candidates themselves. That is what the media is going to take away from this, and that is what people will be judging.
Hillary must get people in the frame of mind she needs to them to be in, seeing this whole debate, and the people in it, in the terms she wants them to see things.
Here’s how she can do it:
Thank you, Lester. Thank you Hofstra University for having us here tonight. And thank you, Donald, for showing up.
Tonight is going to be interesting. I don’t have to tell you, I’m not an entertainer, like Donald Trump. And I know, there’s a certain kind of humor and guilty pleasure hearing him call people “stupid” or “losers.” And, I understand that when he says things like “bigly” and “believe me” it kind of makes you chuckle, right? It’s ok. I chuckle too.
I wish I could pull that off. Maybe I’d get a reality TV show out of it too.
But I can’t. Tonight, to the best of my ability, I want to do the one thing I know I can do – talk in very specific terms about the policies I’m going to fight for, as your President, to make this country more fair and more safe for you and your family, and how we can help those who are most targeted and left out become a priority for all of us.
To your question, [insert one canned paragraph with detailed answer on whatever subject the moderator just asked about]*
So a lot of what I’m going to talk about tonight might seem like small details. But details in a policy are what determine if your kid is going to get the help he or she needs to afford college. The details are what determine billions of dollars in trade, and jobs.
The details are what create or close loopholes that those at the top, like Mr. Trump use to evade paying income tax.
Details in foreign policy are the difference between a treaty, and nuclear war.
So, I hope, tonight, the media and everyone at home get to hear real detailed plans and understanding of issues, because this country deserves nothing less from their next President.
*Note: If the question is about non-policy, like emails, trust, etc, move this to the top after the thank yous and blow past it very briefly.
What’s this statement do? Three key things:
- It sets the filter in Hillary’s favor: Ignore entertainment, listen for details.
- It reinforces the negatives about Trump being not serious, out of the gate, but in the context of how it is relevant to the debate, and to people’s lives and futures.
- It takes the positives for Trump (he’s funny, he’s entertaining, he’s different) and turns it into a weakness with faint praise.
The first point, by far, is the most important.
Making that the opening frame forces the media to consider it in the post-debate analysis. It forces them to add a “but” to any compliment they give Trump about how he might have won on style.
As in, “Donald Trump really seemed at ease tonight and loose, and had a few funny moments, but clearly Hillary Clinton came more prepared to talk about policy.”
At the same time, it sets “call backs” by using common Trump phraseology. By mentioning “stupid,” “losers,” “believe me,” and “bigly,” you set things up so people refer back to the opening statement when they hear Trump say any of those things. It helps people to remember what Hillary said, at the outset.
An added benefit? Maybe it makes Trump a little self-conscious when those words come out of his mouth. He’s not immune to call backs, afterall.
Any way you slice it, this debate is set to be graded on a curve. It is important that Hillary, at the top of the show, change the grading system.
An opening statement like this would be a good start.