The political world will soon focus all of its attention on the first presidential debate, which takes place on Sept. 26 at Hofstra University. The political talking heads are speculating on debate prep and the strategies of the candidates. But the real question is whether this debate will matter to the vast majority of voters, who have already decided who they dislike the least.
The current polls show Hillary Clinton with a lead of anywhere from two to 10 points over Donald Trump. Using my own unsophisticated polling, I haven’t met one person who has told me he or she is undecided. So how is the first debate going to make a major impact on this contest?
Trump has told the whole world what his positions are on immigration and trade deals. He has insulted every group — and important person — I can think of, starting with Pope Francis, the Gold Star Khan family, Hispanics, blacks, Mormons and most other ethnic voters. He has cast a dark cloud over America’s standing in the world, alarming our allies and making our enemies happy at the prospect of his winning this election.
Is he on the verge of changing his positions on any of those subjects? Is he going to apologize to the Khan family? Is he going to tell Sen. John McCain that, yes, he is a war hero? He still favors deporting 11 million undocumented residents, although he’s willing to start with criminals. Is he going to tell Sen. Ted Cruz that he was mistaken about the bizarre allegation that Cruz’s father was somehow involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy?
There is no doubt that candidate Trump, on the advice of his new campaign team, will claim that “in the heat of the primaries, I may have insulted some people, and I regret doing that.” I know a non-apology when I hear one, and that type of talk won’t swing any votes. Is it possible for any candidate to redo all of his or her mistakes in one night? No.
The commentators on debate night will be looking to see if there’s a new Trump, but that’s doubtful. If he’s polite to Clinton, he’ll be praised for his performance, but that’s as likely as my winning the lottery. Will he call her “Crooked Hillary” at least once? You can bet the ranch on that one. Will he wow the audience with his vast knowledge of foreign affairs? Don’t count on it. Donald Trump is the Don Rickles of politics, and nothing can change that.
Clinton comes into this debate with a slight chance to sway some voters for a variety of reasons. Many people consider her insincere, so she’ll have a chance to polish her image. I know from personal experience that the in-person Hillary is a lot nicer than the in-person Donald. There’s no doubt that her mastery of facts will help persuade voters that she can do the job of being president. But her real challenge is persuading the public that all those email stories and other mistakes don’t disqualify her as a candidate.
Many past debates have produced memorable moments. Then Vice President Richard Nixon sweating under the bright television lights. George H.W. Bush looking at his watch to see when the clock would run out. Al Gore sighing with exasperation during his debate with George W. Bush. Lloyd Bentsen putting down opponent Dan Quayle by telling him, “I knew Jack Kennedy … senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
One way or another, this debate will solidify the support that each of these candidates currently has. It may move a few moderate Republicans and single mothers in one direction or another. There are more undecided voters in the Trump camp than the Clinton camp, but that doesn’t say much. There may be a bump for Clinton or Trump, but it may be only a minor one.
My only hope is that the debate is civil and informative, and sends a message to our friends all over the world that the much-respected American political system is still alive and well. I don’t think that’s asking too much.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.