What You Should Really Watch for in Tonight's Debate

AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File

A TV cameraman sets up during rehearsals for the presidential debate between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Sunday, September 25, 2016. 

As we arrive at what some are predicting could be the most-watched presidential debate in history, the speculation is reaching a state of frenzy. Will Trump be calm or crazy? Will Clinton show her personal side? Is Lester Holt going to say anything when Trump claims that Clinton sank the Maine, was secretly Tokyo Rose, once made out with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a party, and wrote all the songs for "Cop Rock"?

After the debate is over, the questions will, if anything, get even dumber, all about who "won," who got off the best one-liners, and whether "expectations" were met. Nothing is less important after a debate occurs than expectations—once it has already happened, we no longer need to care about what the expectations were, because we can look at what actually occurred. Unless, that is, we want to use those expectations to judge not the candidates but the ones doing the expecting, the reporters and commentators who told everyone what was going to happen. If they were wrong, it might be helpful to understand why, so they can avoid repeating their mistakes. But the last thing we should care about is whether either of the candidates did better or worse than their expectations.

If we put all that drivel aside, there are some things that a reasonable person should watch for in Monday's debate and the two that will follow, as a way of understanding what voters might actually gain from this event as they try to resolve whatever remaining doubts they have and arrive at a decision. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could hardly be more different, not just superficially but in ways that have direct and substantial implications for what kind of president each would be. Seeing them stand side by side and respond directly to the things the other one says will probably make these contrasts exceptionally clear. Here are some of the key differences that may emerge in those 90 minutes:

Optimism v. pessimism. This has to do with both the present and the future. To put it simply, Hillary Clinton looks at America and sees a glass half full, while Donald Trump looks at America and sees a glass of toxic sludge with cockroaches floating inside it, which is also on fire as it sits on a coaster made of raccoon turds. These two differing pictures lead directly to the kind of change that each advocates. Clinton is by nature an incrementalist, which fits in nicely with her assessment of the state of the country. We have some problems, she says, but they're problems that can be solved if we understand them and work hard to fix them. Trump, on the other hand, sees the country's problems as deep and profound, requiring not just technocratic fixes but a smashing of the entire political system.

If you could ask Clinton to look beyond this election and answer as a general matter whether America is going to be OK over the long term whether or not she's elected, she'd almost certainly say yes. Trump, on the other hand, describes the country as already being in a nightmare, which will only get worse absent the singular solution: himself. "Only I can fix it," he said in his convention speech, and his campaign revolves around the idea that it is the force of his personality and singular brilliance that will solve problems. So if we don't elect him, all is lost.

What happens when these two visions come into direct and immediate conflict? For the first time, we'll find out.

Problems are complex v. problems are simple. Because Clinton is a technocrat who has been in government for a long time, she has a grasp of how difficult it can be to tackle a problem like health-care reform or international terrorism. Her lengthy answers to questions about these kinds of problems come from a desire to demonstrate how much she knows, but also from a belief that the problems themselves will take time and effort to solve, and failure is a real possibility. Trump, on the other hand, doesn't seem to see any problem as complex. We'll make great deals, we'll start winning, yada yada yada, America will be a paradise.

Needless to say, in a forum where you're only allowed to speak in two-minute chunks, the one selling simple answers has a built-in advantage. But it'll be interesting to see whether Clinton can make a convincing case that serious problems require a serious approach.

Inclusion v. exclusion. Trump is running a campaign of white nationalism, telling Americans that they should fear and hate outsiders, immigrants, and pretty much anyone who doesn't look or speak like you (and you know who "you" are). In contrast, Clinton has been working to reassemble the multi-racial, cosmopolitan coalition that put Barack Obama in the White House and kept him there four years later. If she can lock them down, she'll win.

You can see this contrast clearly in the ways the two candidates talk when they're reaching for patriotic language. Trump has what's basically a tribal appeal: We're great because we're Us, and we're not Them—or at least we were great, back before so many of Them got in. Clinton talks about America as a place of change and growth, where we get better over time in large part because we grow more diverse. Chances are we'll be able to see this difference in the implicit audience for their appeals.

Liberalism v. conservatism. Let's not forget ideology! Despite Trump's lack of interest in policy, it's important to understand that if he becomes president, we're going to get the policy program Republicans have advocated for years—and we're going to get it good and hard. In his first few months in office, congressional Republicans will send him an avalanche of conservative bills, doing things like cutting taxes for the wealthy, making abortions as difficult as possible to obtain, rolling back everything President Obama has tried to do on climate change, undoing regulations on corporations, taking health coverage away from millions of Americans, and dozens more. Trump will sign it all, because he doesn't really care. So we should be watching to see whether he can defend this agenda.

On the other side, Clinton has an extremely progressive program she has pledged to implement, and this is one of her best opportunities to describe it to the public. We should also watch to see what she says about how she'll get it past a Congress that is likely to have at least one house controlled by the GOP, which will do everything in its power to stop her.

There will be plenty of other contrasts—Clinton deals in specifics while Trump focuses more on broad ideas; Clinton sometimes embraces doubt while Trump exudes certainty; Clinton is comfortable conveying emotions that connect her to other people like empathy and concern, while when Trump reaches for an emotion it's likely to be anger or contempt; Clinton will admit mistakes while Trump tries to argue that even his greatest screw-ups were actually brilliant stratagems in disguise. In fact, it's hard to think of a presidential election where the two candidates were more different in more ways. Now we finally get to see them on the same stage, and one thing no one will be able to say is that there's no meaningful difference between them. 

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