Predictions for the first debate in an unpredictable election year

Email a Friend


Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

GWEN IFILL: We get some pre-debate analysis now with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

There is so much to dig into from all of that, folks.

I want to start with you Mark Shields.

What does Hillary Clinton, what do — does Donald Trump have to accomplish tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: Hillary Clinton, at the end of the debate, what you want viewers to say, yes, she’s smart, she’s knowledgeable, but she’s not a bad egg, you know?

You want that sense of a personal identity, a reality come through to give us a peek, a view of her soul, her heart. And if the people — not a bad egg is a pretty high compliment in American politics, given the toxic atmosphere in which we currently dwell.


MARK SHIELDS: That’s what I think she’s looking for.

Donald Trump — Donald Trump defies gravity. I have no idea. I have watched these things since Hector was a pup. And I honestly — remarkable. I don’t care, Pants on Fire, four Pinocchios, it makes no difference.

And so I guess he has to be Donald Trump. It’s gotten him so far. He’s going to dance with the girl who brung him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, you have been watching almost as long as Hector.


AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Yes, I was at the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Were not televised.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think they need to do?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think a lot of this depends on the terrain in which the debate is taking place.

And for Hillary Clinton, she wants it to be on — she wants to be on the offense, and that means putting him on the defense early on about the two issues that are the most problematic for him, his temperament and his judgment, right?

So if the debate is on those issues, who has the temperament to be president of the United States, who has the experience to do this job, that’s great terrain for her. If the debate is where Jack Kingston is talking about — and I think this is where Donald Trump wants to take it — about change, about shaking things up, going against the status quo, that’s a very difficult place for her to be.

And that’s where this election — like, where this election wants to go and where this election is going. Where the election wants to go, slightly more voters than not see this as an election that they want to make a change. And for Hillary Clinton to win, they have to believe that that change is much too dangerous.

GWEN IFILL: David Brooks, what if these 100 viewers tune in for a reality show tonight, get a debate instead?


DAVID BROOKS: The Earth would spin off its axis, and we would all fall out of our chairs.


DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I do think it is more like a reality show. It’s drama. And especially the undecided voters, you know, they’re not interested in somebody’s — the third plank of the health care plan. This is not going to be Plato’s symposium, not that it’s been that so far.

This is not even about what they say. It’s about who they are. And we had a character debate. And they are going to have to display some character traits.

Does she seem normal? Does she seem warm? Does she seem empathetic? Does she seem one of us?

Does he seem in command? Does he seem basically stable?

These are low bars, maybe, but I do think it’s — people are — it’s a visual medium. It’s a visual confrontation between two people who sort of contemptuous of each other. How do they handle that body politic is as important as any words that actually come out of their mouths?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, Mark, how much does it matter whether Donald Trump is preparing? We keep hearing he doesn’t like to prepare, he thinks that that doesn’t really matter. And yet Hillary Clinton has been seriously preparing every day for a while.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know why the Clinton people keep telling us how long she’s been preparing. That really just kind of reinforces this process-driven character.

We know she knows the issues incredibly well. We know that he doesn’t know the issues incredibly well — doesn’t know the issues well. And it’s not hindered him thus far.

I agree, the temperament is a question. You do want to get under his skin. I would have Elizabeth Warren sitting in his eyesight, who obviously bothers him. And, you know, I would try and say that the Republican I admired and worked most closely with in the Senate, that Hillary Clinton did and has written, was John McCain, and I think he is a hero, unlike my opponent, who doesn’t think John McCain is a hero, to remind him, through what he has said, of the embarrassing things he’s said, the Khans, the McCain, his incitement to violence.

I think that’s — I would put him — trying to put him on the defensive.

GWEN IFILL: Well, not only that, but also there has been a lot of discussion leading up to this debate, Amy, about lies and truth and consequences.

Is that something — for instance, we just heard Jack Kingston make a comment, even talking to Judy, about 13 servers that she had. She didn’t have 13 servers, but they just slide the stuff into the conversation.

AMY WALTER: It’s devices she had vs. servers. Exactly. How does that work?

GWEN IFILL: Yes. How does that work? And does that matter to people if truth gets told or called?

AMY WALTER: Right now, Mark is totally correct. When you ask people in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, who do you think is the more honest and trustworthy, Donald Trump wins that question.

Now, it’s not like a lot of people believe both of them — either are honest and trustworthy, but comparatively, he wins that, and especially among some of the groups that she needs to get, like white voters.

But I think the question — and you know this better than anybody, having to moderate a debate — but these candidates have both made so many contradictory statements, he more than her, over the course of this campaign.

And I think the way to start the fact-checking is not by having a crawl underneath saying, what he said was incorrect, was, you said this, you said this, you said this, and you said this. Which one of those things is your position on this issue? Rather than trying to saying, that is actually a lie. No, you’re not telling the truth.

GWEN IFILL: I see, string it all together.

AMY WALTER: String it all together.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I would just underline Mark’s humility about this, especially for Mark — no, for all of us.


DAVID BROOKS: He is tied. This is a tied race.

How that exists, I have no idea. And so the normal rules of Newtonian physics suggests it shouldn’t be that. So, somehow, the rules…

GWEN IFILL: In fact, Hillary Clinton said as much the other day. Why are I 50 points ahead?


DAVID BROOKS: Excellent question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it does depend on the poll you’re looking at. But you’re right. You’re right.

DAVID BROOKS: So, she may be ahead by two.

But this is a very close race. And why that is happening and how he’s been able to do this — so it’s very hard to predict the debate because none of the rules are applying.

The one word I would pick out is the word is cruelty. I think the time he actually has been hurt were the Khans, is, he has appeared cruel. And if he appears cruel, then I do think we will begin to see something shift here.

AMY WALTER: Can I make one point about the laws of physics?

I actually think that this is what the laws of physics at this time and place in politics suggest we should always have a two- or three-point race. What is happening in this race and the reason that it has gotten this close is that Republicans have now accepted Donald Trump.

When the race was — there was a big gap, it was because so many Republicans were staying on the sidelines. So, what this is telling us about politics in the 21st century is that we’re aligned much more by our jerseys than we are by anything else.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, less than a minute.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We awake tomorrow morning, six weeks to go in this election, will things have changed?

MARK SHIELDS: They are going to say, geez, Shields, Brooks and Walter really nailed it.


MARK SHIELDS: That is what they will say.

GWEN IFILL: We will say it.

AMY WALTER: They’re already saying it.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. That’s what we will say.


MARK SHIELDS: No, Judy, what is confounding, and I hope will get resolved tonight, is 70 percent of Hillary Clinton’s voters believe she would be a good president.

Barely half of Donald Trump’s voters believe he would be a good president. They’re voting — the majority of whom are voting against Hillary Clinton. So, the change element that Amy addressed is so significant.

I mean, they are angry. They feel abandoned. They feel all sorts of things. And the fact that Donald Trump can’t name the NATO countries, whatever else, or the five presidents of the first half of the 20th century, make no difference to them.

So, I think it is, as David put, temperament, if he does come across as cruel, mean-spirited and a bully. I mean, don’t forget, it’s the first time a man has debated with a woman for president.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you, Mark Shields, David Brooks, Amy Walter, kind of a mega-Politics Monday.


GWEN IFILL: Join us at 9:00 p.m. Eastern for special live coverage of the debate.

And tune in online for in-depth analysis, where the “NewsHour” team will put what the candidates say in context. That’s all at

The post Predictions for the first debate in an unpredictable election year appeared first on PBS NewsHour.