Debate Night: Get Ready for Donald Trump’s Last Political Reality Show
Election 2016

Debate Night: Get Ready for Donald Trump’s Last Political Reality Show

REUTERS/Chris Tilley

The polls and conventional wisdom have converged over the past two weeks concluding that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- toast. The former reality television star who took the Republican Party by storm during the primaries has collapsed spectacularly under the weight of sexual assault accusations and the candidate’s intemperate outbursts on Twitter and on the stump.

He is bleeding support across the board -- women, independents, Catholics, Evangelicals -- and is on the verge of becoming the first Republican nominee in 60 years to lose college educated white voters in a general election.

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His strategy, to all appearances, has devolved into one based mostly on grievance. He is now claiming, at every opportunity, that the election is “rigged” and that shadowy forces have assembled to steal victory from him. His complaints have become so frequent and potentially toxic to the way the public will view the election results that they earned him a rebuke from President Obama who urged him to stop “whining” in a press conference Tuesday.

In what seems like a last-minute effort to present himself as a serious candidate, Trump has thrown off a series of grandiose policy proposals over the past few days. He’s playing off the public’s well-known disdain for Washington in general, and Congress in particular, and he is likely to try to address present these proposals in the forum tonight. 

He promised Tuesday that he would compel Congress to submit to term limits -- something that only a dictator – not an American president -- has the authority to do and which, in any event, would probably require a constitutional amendment. He also promised to end corruption in Washington through a wide array of reforms to the laws governing lobbyists, which again the president has no power to do himself.

It is, by all estimates, too little, too late.

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As longtime pollster Stuart Rothenberg wrote in the Washington Post yesterday, “He trails badly with only a few weeks to go until November 8, and he must broaden his appeal to have any chance of winning. That is now impossible.”

So as Trump staggers into the final presidential debate tonight in Las Vegas, what should viewers expect?

In a word: spectacle.

The moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace, announced last week that the six areas of discussion, divided into 15-minute segments, would be: debt and entitlements, immigration, economy, Supreme Court, foreign hot spots, and fitness to be President.

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It’s a lineup of meaty subjects, any one of which could occupy the full 90-minutes allotted for the debate. But Trump has given absolutely no indication that he has prepared, in any fashion, to address them seriously.

That is despite the fact that several offer him reasonably good opportunities to score points. Immigration reform was the signature issue that helped him steamroll the rest of the field in the GOP primaries, and Clinton’s time as secretary of state has left her with some serious vulnerabilities when it comes to “foreign hot spots.”

Trump’s promise to preserve entitlements as they are now, which economists say is virtually impossible given his other promises, has nevertheless been a big hit with his older, less-educated base of supporters who are more dependent than most on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

In fact, despite copious polling that shows he lost both of the first two debates badly, he continued to ridicule Clinton for taking time off the campaign trail to prepare for the event.

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“You know what the debate prep is? It's resting. It's lying down, going to sleep,” Trump said of Clinton at a rally in Colorado yesterday.

“Tomorrow night’s going to be interesting. Now she’s home sleeping, and I’m working so -- it’s the way it’s going to be in the White House too. She’d be sleeping; I’d be working,” he said.

In fact, the biggest debate-related news to come out of the Trump campaign on Tuesday was that the candidate had invited President Obama’s half-brother, Malik Obama, to attend the event as his guest. Malik Obama has been a vocal critic of his brother and is a declared supporter of Trump, but he is not viewed as a serious voice in US politics. It’s a puzzling move that seems designed to provoke a man who won’t even be in attendance tonight.

Trump will also bring along Patricia Smith, a woman whose son was among the Americans killed in the terrorist attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. Smith has loudly and persistently claimed that Hillary Clinton is personally responsible for the death of her son, and has accused Clinton of lying to her about the events in Benghazi.

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For her part, Clinton is bringing along a pair of billionaires who have been highly critical of Trump’s candidacy: reality television star and NBA franchise owner Mark Cuban and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman.

But the real action will be on the stage, not in the audience, and there will be only one person on stage with the incentive to shake things up. Trump may throw a few Hail Mary passes tonight, hoping against all odds to manufacture a race-changing moment.

At this point in the campaign, though, Clinton has little incentive to do anything other than play it safe tonight, projecting seriousness and familiarity with the issues and above all, not rising to whatever bait Trump might throw her way.