Donald Trump won the first presidential debate even before it began on Monday night. Or at least that’s what pundits and politicos taking part in the “expectations game” are saying.
Unlike the Hunger Games or the Game of Life, the expectations game dictates candidates be judged not in comparison to each other but only to themselves. At this point, if Trump can stand still on stage for 90 minutes while avoiding calling Hillary Clinton a nasty, sexist name and blaming her for birtherism, a sizable swath of the commentariat will applaud his unexpected focus and gravitas.
To illustrate the absurdity of this, you only have to consider remarks made by one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders on the eve of the first debate. “The expectations on Hillary are very, very high,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus told Fox News. “She’s been doing this for 30 years. I think people expect her to know every little detail.” If we follow Reince’s logic to its (il)logical conclusion, he’s saying that not only does Clinton have a better grasp on issues of import than Trump does, her advantage is so massive that anything less than a total rhetorical annihilation of her opponent in prime time should be seen by voters as an unforgivable failing on her part and a win for Trump.
I, too, was guilty of occasionally playing the expectations game during the GOP primary, but this is, in the words of Joe Biden, a bunch of malarkey. The only way for Trump to actually “win” the debate in any objective sense is to prove himself a better candidate than Clinton, and don’t let any guy named “Mark” or “Halperin” tell you otherwise. Monday night, when the debate ends and you are alone with your thoughts, ignore the noise coming from the blowhards on TV and consult this list of things Trump must do in order to be considered the winner of this debate:
- Trump must display a better understanding of the challenges facing the United States than Clinton, while also explaining why his policy prescriptions are more likely to solve said challenges than hers.
- Trump must offer a more forceful—while still legitimate—critique of Clinton’s trustworthiness than she does of his.
- Trump must be more transparent than Clinton, something that can’t happen unless he hands his tax returns to moderator Lester Holt, thereby finally releasing the important financial information every major party’s presidential nominee has done since 1976.
If Trump does these things, while still managing not to call his opponent a nasty, sexist name and not blame her for birtherism, you may consider him the winner. Otherwise, no matter how even-keeled and not-horrible he seems, he lost, man. He lost.