The trick is to combine substance with showmanship

As Hillary Clinton prepares for the first Democratic debate on Tuesday, she should consult one of America’s most experienced presidential debaters: her husband. 

More actor than orator, Bill Clinton was not the most eloquent debater. And his wife is the great family phrase-maker, having popularized iconic clichés, including “the vast right-wing conspiracy,” “3 A.M.” gut checks and the “glass ceiling.” Moreover, the most memorable 1992 debate highlights included one unfortunate gesture made by Clinton’s rival, President George H.W. Bush, and one line Bush never even uttered. Still, debates have become modern America’s gladiatorial contests, political death matches wherein simply surviving can be miraculous. And like a rock star whose lyrics are incomprehensible, Clinton’s real power was in his overall performance.

Bill Clinton’s great skill during the 1992 debate—and as president—was combining genuine compassion with a mastery of policy proposals that he believed would heal America. Hillary Clinton lacks her husband’s natural people skills. She held her own during the 2008 debates, appearing smart and informed, but far from natural. She doesn’t seem to love having an audience like her husband does. The contrast between them makes her look even stiffer than she is. Even worse, she is often too cautious to pitch policies passionately, although the latest school violence roused her to endorse gun control eloquently.

For Bill Clinton, his defining 1992 debate moment occurred when President George H.W. Bush glanced at his watch, then stumbled through a question about how “the national debt personally affected” him during the Oct. 15 Town Hall-style debate. Clinton had lobbied hard for such an audience-focused format. Bush fell into Clinton’s trap, failing to discern the meaning behind the question, then sounding like the high-toned WASP he was trying to pretend not to be. He responded: “Are you suggesting that if somebody has means that the national debt doesn’t affect them?” Bush’s bumbling fed a national delusion—still occasionally recycled by reporters—that Bush did not know the cost of a gallon of milk. 

This false political memory miscoded a real incident, ascribing a gaffe that happened elsewhere to the overhyped debates. The electronic scanner of a mock supermarket checkout at a technology exhibition “amazed” Bush, even though it was as magical to most Americans by 1992 as a cell phone is today. Both the debate mistake he made and the one he didn’t reinforced Clinton’s critique that Bush was an out-of-touch patrician, ready for forced retirement.

Bill Clinton exploited Bush’s stumble subtly, then—Hillary take note!—telegraphed caring, concern and commitment. A political maestro, Clinton knew how to connect emotionally with suffering voters. The young, charismatic Arkansas governor approached the questioner who had asked the debt question and said: “Tell me how it’s affected you again,” as if he were auditioning to be America’s therapist-in-chief. 

The woman hesitated, so Clinton filled in the blanks, asking (not telling): “You know people who’ve lost their jobs and lost their homes?” He then plunged into his usual “Arkansas governor as mayor, friend and savior” speech, emphasizing that as governor of a small state, he knew people who were suffering, he was alleviating that suffering, and he had the right formula for ending our national suffering.

Clinton also offered an artful dodge that night, which might help Hillary with the email server headache. Refusing to attack Bush personally, Clinton said: “I’m not interested in his character. I want to change the character of the presidency.” 

For Tuesday’s debate, Bill should coach Hill to keep smiling, keep caring, and keep thinking during the debate, without getting distracted by the three-ring journalistic circus. She should not let Bernie Sanders annoy her or yank her too far left. Given her latest late night talk show outings—drinking on Jimmy Fallon and playing a bartender on Saturday Night Live—she may be tempted to keep trying these folksy, woman-of-the-people gestures. But debates require what we thought of in the 1990s as a Clintonesque mix of substance and showmanship.

Hillary Clinton needs to show the American people that she loves politics, that she loves people, and that there is nowhere else she would rather be that night than in the arena—with a glint in her eye, a smile on her face, and the kind of digestible, understandable, and practical solutions to America’s problems that Bill Clinton pitched and personified so expertly.

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