Tonight’s debate is being pitched as a sort of knock-down, drag-out brawl between a free-wheeling, shoot-from-the-hip businessman and a policy-wonk, expert-with-a-communications-problem career politician. Because Donald Trump is so unpredictable, commentators seem to suggest that the debate is unpredictable. But we know that certain issues will come up, and we know with a decent sense of confidence how they’ll play out.
Here are six.
IRS Records/Email Records. Because Trump’s strategy will be to sit back and let Hillary punch herself out, he’s unlikely to launch an attack on her private email server except in retaliation for her attacks on his IRS non-transparency. She’s planting billionaire Mark Cuban in the front row just in order to taunt him – she’ll likely imply that Trump won’t turn over his documents because he isn’t that rich, and quote Cuban to that effect. Trump will strike back with the private email server scandal.
Terrorism. Hillary’s likely to target Trump for ripping the Gold Star Khan family, and she’ll say that he’s too ignorant about foreign policy to handle world problems. Trump will respond by pointing to one of his guests, Mark Geist, a survivor of the Benghazi attack, who will be in the audience. He’ll also point out that she is incapable of stopping terrorism so long as she insists on the importation of more people from countries in which vetting is impossible.
The Iraq War: Trump will trot out Hillary’s support for the Iraq war as a critique of her judgment – and she’ll then say that Trump supported the war, too. This is where it will be important for Lester Holt to intervene, if he’s going to do so – Trump had a habit of stating things that weren’t factually true during the primaries, and nobody really checked him except for Megyn Kelly. But it’s likely Holt will let this stand, which means Clinton will have to go on the offensive here. Even if she does, there’s not much to gain for her.
Black Lives Matter. Trump will talk about Charlotte by defending the cops. Hillary will do so by defending Black Lives Matter and undercutting the cops. That’s a big win for Trump – and an easy issue for him to discuss, since he doesn’t need any broad swath of expertise to talk about the rise in crime.
Sexism. Hillary will bring up Trump’s history of negative comments about women – that’s why she’s bringing a domestic assault survivor to the debate. Here’s where Trump has two options: he can either play it easy and go soft on the issue, or he can go directly at Hillary by attacking Bill. Hillary’s smartest play would be to dump Bill under the bus – to play the victim with Bill and Trump. She probably won’t.
Trade. Trump’s going to attack Hillary for supposedly not caring enough about the white underclass. Hillary will attack Trump for failing to understand international economics – but she’ll look elitist, while he’ll be running to her left on trade deals. He’ll also point at his business record, and she’ll be forced to slime him over his bankruptcies…and again, he’ll hit her for failing to create any jobs. She’s at a significant disadvantage on the issue.
Trump’s got the upper hand with the news cycle; he’s also at an advantage in terms of the format because there will be so much material covered in such a short period of time. Fluency will be less important than how Trump responds to Hillary’s attacks. And we already have some good indicators of just how he’ll do it.