Hey, Donald. Don't Take The Bait!

The nation’s future hangs in the balance as we approach the second Presidential debate, Sunday night. That’s why I’m on a mission to send my new book TRUMPED! A Nation on the Brink of Ruin… and How to Bring It Back to every American who answers me, absolutely free. (Click here for more details.)

If they had a designated hitter rule in politics, of course, his managers would bench him for the Sunday night rematch with Hillary, and put Governor Mike Pence in the batter’s box.  The man was absolutely superb Tuesday night. He looked Presidential, eloquent, compelling and prepared.

None of those words come to mind with respect to the Hofstra debate and its tweet storm aftermath. So the Donald’s first step should be to watch the entirety of the Pence-Kaine debate — with his thumbs taped back. Twice!

I’m not talking about the policy substance here — especially because Pence went way off-script sounding like Hillary on no-fly zones around Aleppo and getting all puckered-up with bellicosity about Putin and Russia. The fact is, the voters of Flyover America are tired of war and tune out when politicians start threatening to bomb faraway places that have no bearing on the safety and security of Lincoln NE or Johnstown PA.

Instead, I am praising Mike Pence for the agility with which he rejected the trash talk bait from Senator Kaine — and then pivoted and moved on to prosecute the case against Hillary, Obama and the failing status quo.

Indeed, Senator Kaine was so rude, churlish, sophomoric and offensive that even when she’s off her meds, Hillary’s never been that relentlessly insulting. According to the pundits, the out-of-control Senator from Virginia managed 72 interruptions during the hour and half debate. That’s one every 75 seconds if you are counting.

My point here is that Governor Pence was absolutely unflappable in this face of this flash card barrage. He recognized that the core strategy of the Clinton camp is to indict a false caricature of Trump by stringing together the Donald’s own bountiful emission of deplorables. That is, loose sound bites about Mexicans, women, refugees, Muslims, political opponents and much more.

So Pence refused to acknowledge the caricature, and time after time pivoted back to the case against Hillary and the failed policies which have left Flyover America behind.

In that respect, there is a second thing Trump should do. He should watch a video of Ronald Reagan’s decisive win over Jimmy Carter during the Cleveland debate on the eve of the 1980 election. Governor Reagan’s job that night was to slay nearly an identical caricature to the present day media-crafted smear of Donald Trump — that is, of a dangerous cowboy and grossly incompetent Hollywood B-actor who was “unfit” for the Oval Office.

As history now attests, he demolished that stereotype in spades, thereby winning the debate and the election.

I harken back to Cleveland because I have a bit of expertise and helpful memory.

I spent the weekend before that debate in a mock studio sparring with the Gipper — playing the role of Jimmy Carter with a Michigan accent. The good news for Trump from those morning and afternoon sessions is that at the start Reagan knew even less about the issues than the Donald does today. And that was less than two weeks before the election!

Nor did Ronald Reagan spend the weekend cramming his head full of economic stats, legislative detail or with a litany of names, places and events on the foreign policy front. Watch the tape — the Gipper’s policy “substance” was mainly warmed over lines from the recent campaign trail and from his long-running travels on the rubber chicken circuit.

What he did do, by contrast, was drill, drill, drill.  The rehearsal room was not merely filled with various campaign advisors and policy experts, but also with some of the greatest wordsmiths around. These included not only his able speechwriter, Ken Khachigian, pollster Dick Wirthlin and communications advisor, David Gergen, but also the most gifted conservative writer of the present era, George Will.

And that was mighty important because one of the Great Communicator’s best skills was an ear for how it would sound. Like the actor he was, he set his own ego aside and got “in character”. He knew that to become President he would need to convincingly play the part for 90 minutes — simultaneously shedding the media caricature and wordsmithing his message in reassuring, compelling tones.

In short, he knew that in preparation for the big stage at Cleveland, where upwards of 80 million viewers were expected, he needed all the coaching and practice he could get. As a young Congressman, and one assuredly overly impressed with my own accomplishments at the time, I was stunned to see the alacrity with which Ronald Reagan set his own ego completely aside and cheerfully took instructions from the group on how to get the job done.

Indeed, the rehearsals were held in a makeshift studio — podiums, microphones, lighting and all — near the Virginia ranch of Senator John Warner, who happened to be married to Nancy’s good friend, Elizabeth Taylor. Besides occasionally serving lemonade to the rehearsal team, the two of them also discretely coached the candidate on his tone, cadence, posture, word choices and stage presence.

Believe me, all the debate practicing, answer-honing and wordsmithing paid off. That because on the first day of the rehearsal Ronald Reagan was just plain miserable.

That first rehearsal for Reagan’s only debate with Jimmy Carter was every bit as bad as Donald Trump’s Hofstra performance. Yet by debate night he was more than ready because by then he knew that his job was to not take the bait when Jimmy Carter pounded on the “Reagan” caricature, but to deliver his well-honed critique of the failed status quo and his well-practiced lines about his plans for a more uplifting future; and to do so in a calm, sincere and compelling manner.

In that regard I can perhaps claim a small part of the debate rehearsal’s success. There had arrived at my front door a few days earlier a thick binder of “Presidential Debate” briefing papers. Alas, the binder had been prepared for President Jimmy Carter, not me.

It later became known as the “pilfered” briefing book, but I can assure you it contained no state secrets whatsoever. It was just a pack of exaggerations, distortions and lies about the accomplishments of the Carter Administration and an encyclopedia of his second term plans to make Big Government even bigger.

But it also contained a compilation of  several dozen of Ronald Reagan’s own verbal gaffes, confusions and rhetorical deplorables, including many that had been taken out of context and made into the truth by endless repetition by the press and democrats.  That included the “trees cause pollution” claim, various riffs on welfare queens, ruminations on the possibility of winning a nuclear war and much more.

I did hurtle these at the Gipper with gusto during the rehearsals, but before long he got his defense and pivot down to one word and a comma: ” No, …….”.

At the end of the day, the heart of the “Reagan” caricature was the hysterical charge by the establishment media that he had an itchy trigger finger and would be a menace to humanity with his hand near the nuclear button.

But here’s how he opened the debate with his first answer:

In 1980, Reagan’s very first answer — “I’m only here to tell you that I believe with all my heart that our first priority must be world peace” — was designed to puncture Democratic claims that he was a warmonger.

At the moment, the Soviet Union had about 9,000 nuclear warheads and leaders who sounded and actually were far more menacing than the deranged punks who appear in ISIS videos today. But even under those circumstances, Reagan played the Peace Card and it worked. It dispelled the incendiary nuclear war-monger charge against Republicans that the Democrats had been using since the “Daisy” attack ad and its mushroom cloud in 1964.

Donald Trump should take note. The mainstream media caricature boils down to the charge that he is rude and dangerous — with the latter all about the nuclear button again.

So there is only one way to play it. He can put the primal fear about the nuclear button that lurks among college educated and suburban voters to rest and put Hillary on the defensive by saying there is only one extensively nuclear armed power in the world today, and that is Russia. If elected, Trump should promise to at once get on a plane, like General Eisenhower did with respect to Korea in 1952, and meet Putin anywhere between here and Moscow.

As a first and highest priority of his administration, he should pledge to do his deal-making best to make a Peace Deal with the leader of Russia, and thereby eliminate any threat of a nuclear confrontation; and also pave the way for avoiding an unnecessary and costly revival of the cold war in Europe and for cooperation with Russia and its allies in the eradication of ISIS in the Middle East.

In order to embarrass Hillary the Hawk, who has absurdly likened Vladimir Putin to Hitler, the Donald could even try some mischievous humor. The Donald could claim to clearly see from the top of Trump Tower that Russia is no existential threat to America’s security.

But unlike the Siberian land mass Sarah Palin espied from Alaska, his reference would be to the $1.6 trillion GDP of the New York metro area that one can actually see from that lofty Fifth Avenue perch — and which is significantly greater than the entire GDP of Russia.

Does America therefore have any reason to fear a country that is 7% its size?

Would not a far better alternative to Hillary’s name calling and threats to intensify Obama’s confrontationist policies be a plan to negotiate peaceful coexistence in Europe and cooperation in combatting terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere?

Flyover America doesn’t give a whit about Crimea, and shouldn’t. Catherine the Great bought it for good money from the Turks 233 year ago and the rest is just the meandering borders of Russian/Soviet history that don’t matter.

If Trump had some real moxie, in fact, he could even say that what brought NATO to Russia’s doorstep for no valid reason whatsoever was the amateur do-goodism of Bill and Hillary Clinton trying to distract the country from a certain blue dress.

Only the neocons and the pompous stiffs who run the New York Times editorial page would take umbrage.

There are  two other lessons. Initially, the commentariat thought  Carter won because “by every measure except aw-shucks niceness”, as one journalist wrote, “Carter was the clearly superior performer”. But “aw-shucks niceness”  was probably the biggest weapon in Reagan’s toolkit.

The second lesson is that it’s all in the close, and the latter needs to be scripted, honed and perfected. You can’t beat the way Ronald Reagan and his speechwriters exited the stage at Cleveland.

“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

The question was unanswerable then, and only needs to be updated by Donald Trump to reference the last eight years or even 25 years, and to the issues of jobs, living standards and security at home and endless failures, wars and loss of lives and treasure aboard.

It would apparently be asking a lot of the Donald to check-in his towering ego way up high and away from the fray in the Penthouse of Trump Tower. But if he can manage that and then spend the weekend as Ronald Reagan did practicing his message, rejecting the bait and taking instruction from his debate team, he might yet save his campaign.

He might also spare the American people the nightmare of four more years of Hillbama and the failed rule of our Wall Street/Washington elites.


David Stockman
for The Daily Reckoning

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