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I was once asked by a political campaign to help their candidate with debate prep. Along with my candidate, there were several very intelligent, articulate and qualified candidates running. And then there was Robert (not his real name). That’s where I came in.
Robert was a one-issue candidate. He did not have a website, a social media presence, a staff or a platform. What he did have was a single economic idea, though it was not particularly well-thought out, specific or even implementable, given the powers of the office he was seeking. He also had a penchant for the bizarre.
He had run for numerous offices in the past, never making a dent in the polling or the final vote tally. But he had secured enough signatures to run this time around, and he was going to be in the debates.
My campaign had a problem: How do you prep for a debate — a real debate against smart and competent opponents — while also preparing for the absurdity that Robert was sure to bring to the table?
The answer: they asked me to put on my best chaos hat and do my damnedest to throw the candidate off.
I watched every tape I could find of Robert. I transcribed long, rambling speeches and statements. I scoured the internet for his musings, and in the end, I played Robert throughout the debate prep process, in all his oddness and glory.
In keeping to form, I alternated wildly between silent and verbose, between deferential and outright rude. No matter what the question, I pivoted to my single idea. It didn’t matter if the subject was gay marriage, taxes or education, I was going to talk about one thing: my idea.
Throughout prep, I went out of my way to ensure that the candidate could never know what to expect. At times I sided with him, forcing him into a corner by appearing to be an ally (remember when Brandi Maxxxx, the local Pawnee porn star, kept pulling that on Leslie Knope during her city council debates?). At times I spoke almost literal nonsense (often pulled directly from statements Robert had given in previous speeches or debates). At other times, I belittled the candidate in a way that was uncomfortable for everyone in the room. But it was my job. No angle — however hostile or awkward — was left unexplored.
In the end, the campaign decided that there was little choice but to ignore Robert, no matter what he said or did. When it was time for the real debates, this helped keep my candidate’s performance steady, even as the evenings invariably took strange turns.
Robert was polling at less than 1%. But he had the time to stand in front of grocery stores and gas stations collecting signatures from people who just didn’t care enough to say no. This had secured him a place on the ballot, and thus a spot in the debates.
What if, instead of preparing to debate Robert, the campaign had needed to prepare to debate a world-famous celebrity, one worth TEN BILLION DOLLARS (allegedly)? What if this celebrity’s primary issue excited the base and any disrespect shown to him — whether through disagreement or sidelining — was an affront that he would never ignore or forgive? What if it was all but guaranteed that the stories written about the debate the next day would inevitably be about him, and how everyone else had interacted with him?
Well, I’m not sure what the strategy would be then. I just know I wouldn’t want to be an adviser to Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker or anyone else preparing for a debate with someone like that.
The point is, Robert should never have been in the debates. He took up precious time. He meant well, certainly, but he lowered the level of discourse. No matter what the topic, he made the conversation less thoughtful and nuanced. In the lead-up to this week’s Fox News debate, I have been thinking a lot about Robert.
Donald Trump has a website, a social media presence, a staff and a platform (sort of). Mostly he just has money. A lot of money.
But for Trump, every issue is black and white. People who don’t agree with him are “dummies” or “losers.” He has ideas, but no plans (Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall, and he can’t bring jobs back to America when he doesn’t even produce his own goods here). He talks ad nauseam about “the Mexicans,” “the Chinese” and “the Saudis.” He tells us constantly how they’re beating us, that he likes them, that he sells them condos. It’s nonsense, on endless repeat. There are no statistics or facts, there isn’t even really a proposal.
He wrote the Art of the Deal. He’s worth a lot of money. He’s loved by many people. These refrains seem to be the heart of his campaign.
How is the GOP going to have an honest debate about the particulars of the Iran Deal when Donald Trump is taking all the oxygen from the stage simply repeating the fact that he is the world’s best negotiator, so of course he could have done it better.
When they talk about immigration, he’ll talk about building a wall. How can Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio hope to discuss real plans?
He loves the vets and he’s going to be the best President there has ever been to them. I support that 100%. But what does that mean? How can Scott Walker articulate a proposal to fix the VA while Trump is controlling the conversation simply by being angry about it?
Elections are hard. They take passion. But they’re also about ideas.
Donald Trump has passion. But he doesn’t seem to have any real ideas. What he does have is our attention. And come Thursday, he is going to be on stage, ensuring that the Republicans vying for their party’s nomination don’t actually talk about anything.
Even Robert is out there somewhere, yelling at his television, wondering what the hell Donald is talking about.