Before Friday, I thought Donald Trump’s mission in the upcoming debate should be to persuade Americans he’s not a bad guy. After Friday, his mission may be to persuade people he’s not a monster.
You prove these things by conducting yourself accordingly. You can’t prove them by attacking your opponent’s character. And if you attack the character of your opponents’ spouse, you tend to confirm that you’re a bad guy.
Nor is there any need for Trump to show that Hillary’s character is bad. America understands this. The electorate favors her only because it believes Trump’s character may well be worse.
Thus, the “hit back twice as hard” philosophy is ill-suited for tonight’s debate. It’s perfectly suited for Trump’s persona, though. Therefore, he will be tempted to revert to it at some point. Count on Hillary and/or the moderator to push hard on that button.
If Trump can resist the temptation, the debate provides him an opportunity to make a full-throated and unqualified apology for his remarks. The apology will be heard, unfiltered, by a much larger audience than he otherwise could reach so soon after the release of the “p****y grabbing” video. And it will be heard during an event that may create other things to talk about.
In addition, Trump will be answering questions from voters in a town hall setting. This setting increases his opportunity to come across as human.
To capitalize on this opportunity, Trump shouldn’t say that the remarks “aren’t him.” He needs to say they aren’t him anymore. He can’t try to explain the remarks any as meaningless locker room talk. No matter how many times they come up, he needs to repeat his apology and pivot to the issues.
His model should be Hillary Clinton. When the emails came up in the first debate, she didn’t trot out any of her lame excuses or explanations. She said that using the private server was a mistake for which she apologizes, and she quickly moved on.
Trump needs a fuller, more heart-felt apology the first time the issue arises — one that could go something like this. After that, he needs to repeat the apology and move on.
In tonight’s debate, Trump should focus on getting off the mat, not landing haymakers. If he survives this debate, he can go for a knockout in the final one.
But does Trump even realize that he’s on the mat?