Hillary Clinton is studying Donald Trump’s insecurities as if they were white papers fresh from Brookings, the New York Times reports. The Democratic nominee knows that voters won’t grade this fall’s debates on the precision of each candidate’s policy knowledge. She knows she can’t come off as merely better prepared than her rival — she must also be more likable and authentic. And to do that, she really has to prepare.
Clinton is consulting the ghostwriter of Trump’s autobiography, a team of psychologists, and “forensic” analyses of Trump’s GOP primary debates to identify “trigger points” that could cause the Republican nominee to “lash out in less-than-presidential ways.” So far, they have deduced that Donald Trump is “most insecure about his intelligence, his net worth and his image as a successful businessman,” and are scripting ways to strike at these pressure points. Once the game plan is assembled, Clinton will participate in a series of mock debates, with billionaire Mark Cuban, longtime Clinton aide James Carville, and New York congressman Joseph Crowley on the short list of potential Trumps.
The GOP nominee’s preferred method of debate prep is a bit less formal. Per the Washington Post:
He summons his informal band of counselors — including former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, talk-radio host Laura Ingraham and ousted Fox News Channel chairman Roger Ailes — to his New Jersey golf course for Sunday chats. Over bacon cheeseburgers, hot dogs and glasses of Coca-Cola, they test out zingers and chew over ways to refine the Republican nominee’s pitch.
In other words, Trump chats about politics over brunch with his friends. The Post reports that Trump’s staff has prepared a series of briefing books, but the candidate is not “devoting much time to reading them.” The Times says that advisers invited Laura Ingraham to attend his first debate session on August 21, hoping Trump might be interested in sparring with the conservative radio host’s impersonation of Hillary. He was not. “I believe you can prep too much for those things,” Trump told the Times. “It can be dangerous. You can sound scripted or phony — like you’re trying to be someone you’re not.”
Understandably, Trump’s campaign manager is trying to recast the fact that the GOP nominee is too lazy to do his homework into a deliberate strategy.
“He’s an unconventional candidate, so debate prep in the classic sense doesn’t apply to him,” Kellyanne Conway told the Post. “That applies to the accoutrements that are usually associated with getting ready for debates: contrived gestures, lecterns, a group of consultants in belted khakis holed up in a cabin, the Socratic method of peppering questions. That’s not him.”
The Times draws a similar conclusion:
Rarely are debate preparations as illuminating about the candidates as a debate itself, but Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Trump’s strikingly different approaches to the Sept. 26 face-off are more revealing about their egos and battlefield instincts than most other moments in the campaign.
It’s true that Clinton and Trump are taking different “approaches” to debate prep, like Usain Bolt and a man who plans to walk to the doughnut shop — next time — are taking different “approaches” to getting in shape. Which is to say, Trump’s preparations don’t reveal his “battlefield instincts,” they testify to the incapacity for self-discipline that has defined his entire campaign.
There is no strategic logic to the idea that the best way for Trump to win the debates is to wing it, for authenticity’s sake. The GOP nominee’s improvised remarks have proven so damaging to his favorability he has relied on a teleprompter for all his major speeches in recent weeks.
Just going by instinct might have worked during the Republican debates — where there were always at least three other candidates onstage, and most of the voters watching supported banning Muslims from the United States — but there’s no reason to think a replication of those performances would play well in a head-to-head with Clinton before a general-election audience.
The public is overwhelmingly skeptical about Trump’s qualifications for the Oval Office. Shouting cruel nicknames, insinuating that he has a large penis, and repeating transparent lies are unlikely to change that narrative. What’s more, in a two-person debate Trump will need to talk at great length about policy, while rebutting follow-up questions from both the moderator and his rival. To the extent that Trump has detailed a policy agenda, he has done so largely in scripted speeches that were written by other people. In the past two weeks, he’s proven incapable of speaking coherently about even the signature issue of his entire campaign. Can Trump really improvise a convincing defense of estate tax repeal, a position that even skilled GOP politicians — whose children don’t ostensibly stand to gain billions of dollars from the policy — have trouble justifying?
Above all, there’s the fact that Trump is losing this campaign, and the debates are one of the only opportunities for him to change that. And yet, at this point, he has neglected to even accept his invitation to the dance.