What should you look for if you happen to be one of those dedicated Americans who watches “primary” debates?
For sheer entertainment value, of course, everyone will be watching “The Donald.” His just showing up should help raise the ratings meter even as it lowers the gravitas quotient, which would be hard to maintain anyway, given the crowd.
So what do you do when the average time you’re going to be able to talk is measured in minutes (or seconds) and you’re just another reasonable conservative white male whose name is not Bush or Trump? No one is going to remember your name afterward. This simply won’t do.
Thus the perennial preoccupation with “stunts” — those moments in debates, usually more anticipated than you think, when someone gets off a punch.
Someone sits down and says, “I am paying for this microphone” (Ronald Reagan). Or someone turns to his opponent and says, “Where’s the beef?” Or of course there’s Lloyd Bentsen’s “I knew Jack Kennedy” line, which was not exactly a stunt, but an idea that came up in debate prep and Bentsen kept in his back pocket, just in case Dan Quayle mentioned Kennedy.
The truth is that not many people actually watch political debates, certainly not the whole thing.
What they watch, or hear about, are the clips that make the late shows or the talk shows: “the moments.” These moments can actually be quite awful (Gov. Rick Perry hopelessly trying to remember what the three departments were that he wanted to cut) or just plain funny (Cain’s 9-9-9).
Debates are opportunities, but they can also be sinkholes, as any candidate who has made a bad mistake in a debate will tell you.
Usually you win a debate by being as aggressive as you can. It’s not that being aggressive is inherently attractive, but there’s heat and light, which is enough for debates.
The trick in the Republican debate is to determine whom to attack. The Donald can attack everyone and anyone, because nothing will really start counting until after this debate, when the press finally starts treating him like a real candidate (i.e., investigates him down to his boxer shorts, with all the messy details of money lost and promises broken, eventually pushing him to lose his temper and lose his support). Just my prediction.
But in the meantime, The Donald has something most of the other candidates don’t have. Supporters.
And while you may want to appeal to the grown-ups (or so they call themselves) in the Republican party by taking on the Donald for cheapening up this whole race and not taking the defeat of Hillary Clinton seriously enough, the one thing you don’t want to do is alienate his supporters.
These are people who care enough about politics (or are just so bored) that they go to political events in August, and who most likely won’t end up actually voting for The Donald.
So do you try to cozy up to Trump and say stupid things like, “Every one of us on this stage is more qualified to be president than Hillary Clinton”?
Or do you do what Trump himself would do, which is to call out the imposter who has no business on the stage, and tell him to stop playing ego games with our democracy. Trump would do it. That’s why he’s popular.
But I don’t expect many of the others will have the nerve.
Susan Estrich is a nationally syndicated columnist.