Donald Trump’s successes in the 2016 general election can be traced in part to bold moves.
The morning of Aug. 19, Trump fired his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, a dramatic act designed to set his derailing campaign back on track. Later the same day, while Hillary Clinton dithered and President Obama tore up the fairways on Martha’s Vineyard, Trump grabbed his vice presidential nominee, Gov. Mike Pence, and headed to flood-ravaged Louisiana to help provide relief. And at the end of the month, he seized on an invitation by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and went to Mexico, looking presidential by meeting with Nieto privately and then staging a news conference.
Trump needs an Inchon landing or two to change the subject and appear a man of action — rather than a man of reaction.
Trump, who was now also more disciplined and on-message, was looking to voters like someone who could be their president. By the middle of September, he was within a point of Clinton in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls.
But since then, there hasn’t been much in the way of bold moves, and Trump is once again engaged in petty disputes and facing charges he is a serial fondler. With three weeks remaining, and trailing in most polls, Trump needs an Inchon landing or two to change the subject and appear a man of action — rather than a man of reaction.
With the debate Wednesday evening, Trump has one last turn on the national stage to make his case to voters. Why not make it two?
Trump should challenge Clinton to a fourth debate, this one devoted solely to the issue voters care about most — the economy.
While the third debate ostensibly will focus on serious issues, one of the topics for discussion will be “fitness to be president,” foretelling another melee marked by personal attacks.
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By proposing a debate where comment is restricted to economic issues, Trump could occupy the moral high ground, a place where he has had plenty of trouble standing, even against Hillary Clinton.
The numerous shortcomings of each candidate have already received a substantial attention. Demanding a debate on the economy would be more than political posturing. It would provide a chance for voters to receive an unadulterated airing of an issue that has been overshadowed constantly by the vitriol and scandals that have plagued the campaign.
The two candidates are in a similar place in that their ethics have been seriously questioned. Where they differ substantially is in their plans for America.
With the economy currently growing at just over 1 percent, the issue is an obvious winner for Trump. Clinton has promised to double down on Obama’s policies, expanding Obamacare and increasing spending. But so far, whatever points Trump makes in debates related to the economy are overshadowed by talking heads pondering who got the meanest jab in, whether someone was stalked onstage, or the number of times a candidate sniffed during the proceedings.
Instead of showboating TV journalists, Trump could demand that actual economists moderate the proceedings, or other parties — perhaps former federal judges? — deemed more neutral than the fourth estate. There is no intrinsic reason why journalists are running the debates. As long as the moderators can ask intelligent questions and tell people when their time is up, they’ll do. Journalists like to think they have unique abilities, but their profession doesn’t even require a high school diploma, let alone a graduate degree.
Trump, who improved vastly from the first debate to the second, would be expected to do well and would relish another chance to hold center stage yet again. Hillary, whose instinct is to play it safe, would no doubt hate the experience, and it would probably show. “One down, two to go,” she said after the first debate, as if getting through an obstacle course. Trump could even propose that the debate go two hours, making her likely rejection of the offer a commentary on her stamina.
A fourth debate is reasonable. Lincoln and Douglas staged seven of them, lasting three hours each. And they were only running for Senate.
In fact, to minimize the role of the moderators — and the candidates’ own stagecraft — Trump could propose that they follow the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates: The first candidate speaks for 60 minutes; the second does a 90-minute rebuttal; and the first then gets another 30 minutes. No doubt in need of some bona fides as a gentleman, Trump could offer Clinton her choice of the order.
Of course, Hillary would almost certainly reject the whole idea. Even if the American people would benefit from a no-nonsense debate, she would not. At which point, Trump would be looking pretty good, and probably would have won a couple of news cycles as everyone talks up his bold move.
And then he could double down by saying he will hold the debate without her. The cable networks would have to cover him, because every other time Trump opens his mouth, he makes news.
And if Trump wants to get devious about it, he could lament the absence of a liberal to joust with and invite Green Party candidate Jill Stein to debate him. And only Jill Stein. By giving this obscure leftist a platform, Trump could provide Democrats queasy about Clinton an option that could siphon off untold numbers of votes from her column.
And then it might be Hillary asking for another debate.
Keith Koffler is the editor of website White House Dossier and the newsletter Cut to the News.