Like everything else, the debates are all about Trump

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist

When Hillary Clinton takes to the debate stage next week, in the opener of a three-act tragedy that will rivet most of the nation, she should keep in mind that the campaign really isn’t about her.

I say this not because, when she talks to voters, Clinton too often has a tendency to frame her campaign as the necessary capstone of her long, lonely, twilight struggle of a career, rather than as a vehicle for reform — although she does.

I say it not because Clinton can come across as aggrieved, a victim of venal Republicans and craven media who is biding her time until she can settle all the old scores, like Carrie at the prom.

No, I say it because at this point the campaign really isn’t hers to win or lose, and probably nothing she says will change its trajectory. It’s all about her opponent now.

Barring some cosmic meltdown from Clinton, these debates will unfold as a test for Donald Trump. We’re about to find out whether he can pass himself off as a credible entrant for the job and, perhaps more to the point, whether he actually wants it.

At bottom, presidential debates are always about something, beyond all those banal answers to predictable questions. The 2000 debates, for instance, were essentially a test of whether George W. Bush knew enough to be president. The 2004 debates were a chance for John Kerry to show he had some clear convictions about terrorism and economics.

Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP/Getty

If Clinton had almost any other opponent (like someone who was, say, an actual Republican), the debates would probably be a clear referendum on her and on the Obama years.

She is running effectively as an incumbent, seeking an exceedingly rare third term for the party in power. She is the oldest Democratic nominee in history, the first woman in either party and a controversial figure in American life for 25 years and counting.

But that’s not where we find ourselves. Whether from incompetence or instability, Trump has managed to make himself not the default alternative to a candidate who is deeply distrusted by the electorate, but rather the dominant and more divisive figure of the two.

Rather than play along with Trump’s “Dancing With the Stars” kind of campaign, Clinton has largely receded to the shadows offstage, content to watch while Trump gyrates and boogies himself into all kind of grotesque poses, alternately amusing and reviling much of the viewing audience.

And so, improbably, the election is now a referendum on him. Clinton’s support is probably inelastic at this point; assuming she slogs cautiously through the debates in her admirable if uninspiring way, she can do little to change the minds of those who already know how they feel about her, which is pretty much everyone.

Whether that’s enough to deliver her the White House is almost entirely a question of whether Trump can yet persuade some segment of disenchanted, moderate voters that he meets the very lowest threshold for a plausible president — someone who won’t destroy the world, at a minimum, and who might not embarrass them every day of the week for the next four years if they get really lucky.

Specifically, we’re talking about white voters with college degrees, who make up more than a third of the likely electorate. According to some fascinating research from the Democratic group Third Way, it’s been more than 60 years since any Democratic candidate won that population outright. Four years ago, Mitt Romney carried these voters by 14 percentage points.

In recent polling, however, Clinton continues to lead among college-educated white voters by as much as 7 points. Clinton may not be able to replicate President Obama’s numbers among more heavily Democratic constituencies, but if the trend among these historically Republican voters holds, it’s hard to see how Clinton isn’t elected.

This is the most critical audience among the 100 million or so Americans who are likely to watch the debates and assess Trump’s fitness to serve. If he lapses into more assurances about the size of his member (and yeah, I know no one wants to relive that moment, but we have to acknowledge it happened and talk about it before we can really move on as a nation, people), chances are nothing else will matter.

If, on the other hand, Trump can appear more candid than crude, more disruptive than dangerous, he might yet vault himself over the absurdly low hurdle of acceptability — especially if Clinton offers a contrasting study in insincerity.

If Clinton were to ask my advice (and believe me, the phone isn’t ringing), I’d tell her to do herself a favor and leave home without the canned zingers that some comedy writer is probably typing up for her right now, because that’s a thing candidates have felt the need to do ever since “Where’s the Beef?” and “You’re no Jack Kennedy” entered the political lexicon at the zenith of broadcast television’s cultural influence.

All that’s going to achieve is to make her seem more scripted and condescending next to a candidate whose core appeal for a lot of voters is grounded in shattering the tired artifice of modern politics. You don’t beat reality TV with a laugh track.

Trump’s objective ought to be far simpler. For months now, ever since he locked down the nomination and replaced the party’s brand with his own, voters who didn’t much like Clinton have been trying like mad to get their heads around a Trump presidency. All he ever had to do, really, was to walk on two feet and not constantly remind everyone of how crass and ignorant he could be.

Even now, were Trump to just lapse into a coma and stay submerged until three days before the election, he’d stand a reasonable chance of winning.

That a man as preternaturally stage-savvy as Trump hasn’t been able to meet this standard tells you something about his labyrinthine psyche. That Trump manages to melt down in spectacular fashion every time his poll numbers rise beyond respectability suggests that he is, at best, deeply conflicted about the prospect of actually being president.

Trump doesn’t want to be a Loser, of course, because that’s the worst thing he can ever imagine being. But I also seriously doubt he wants to wake up every day and govern.

My guess is that, in his dream scenario, Trump loses by a few points, succeeds in persuading his followers that the election was stolen by the party establishment or the media or Mexican criminals, and then repairs to the comfort of Trump Tower to consider how best to exploit the whole affair.

So this is the high drama of the debates. We get to watch a man wrestle with his own fears and insecurities, struggling for just a few crucial hours to behave like someone other than a guy whom no one in his right mind would describe as presidential.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned this year, it’s that dispiriting politics makes for great TV.