This Monday we will see Hillary Clinton battle Donald Trump in their first presidential debate.
It’s difficult to capture the otherworldliness of it all. Most of the commentary centers around Trump — and for good reason. He’s the X factor. Some see him as a brilliant, media-savvy disruptor, shaking the foundation of the political establishment. Others see him as a Rodney Dangerfield-esque character (with a touch of Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner) who managed to bluff his way onto the national stage, demanding respect.
And that barely scratches the surface. Between friends and foes the descriptions get more ridiculous by the hour. He’s Cincinnatus, he’s Hitler, he’s Reagan, he’s “orange Muppet Hitler” (in the words of some celebrities), he’s George Washington, he’s some other kind of Hitler. And so on.
But it’s worth remembering that Clinton, in her own excruciatingly dull, grating and pedantic way, has long been a larger-than-life figure, too. It may not seem like it given that she often sounds like a luncheon speaker at a conference of insurance industry actuaries. But if you were a student of the lady, you’d know that the flinty demeanor is widely believed to be a tightly managed veneer, hiding a thoroughly ideological, somewhat paranoid and testy woman.
One needn’t credit all of the wild rumors and allegations about lamp throwing, hurled expletives and petty revenge-seeking to still believe that there’s more to Clinton than the relentless stream of cliches and platitudes that she spouts with metronomic monotony.
She clearly has the ability to elicit loyalty from very powerful people (and to bequeath power to very loyal people) without having to make them sign nondisclosure agreements the way her opponent does. That alone suggests there’s something more to her than meets the eye. Her supporters, in fact, insist that’s the case: that the real Hillary is like a verdant oasis of wit and charm hidden in the vast desert of her public persona.
To borrow a phrase from The Who, the Hillary we see is an eminence front, a put-on.
Intriguingly, this is almost the mirror version of what many of Trump’s biggest fans say about him, except they claim that the bluster and bullying, the stunted, ill-fitted vocabulary and seemingly bone-dry reservoir of policy expertise is what you might call an everyman front.
He may talk like a Joe Sixpack working one of his constructions sites, but underneath – allegedly – is one of the most clever and shrewd businessmen ever to walk the earth, playing chess 10 moves ahead.
The political consultants no doubt have a long to-do list for each of them. Clinton has almost certainly committed to memory a whole catalog of necessary micro-panders to specific constituencies and demographics (left-handed 19-year-old Asian-American diabetic English majors attending community college, etc.). And it seems a sure bet that Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has endeavored to impress upon her candidate the importance of being on his best behavior.
The first debate – there will be three, and then, if prophecies hold true, the rivers turn to blood – will probably be fought defensively. Both are sufficiently unpopular with voters outside their respective bases that each is probably most fearful (or should be) of pushing undecideds away with a gaffe.
But looked at more broadly, the most remarkable thing is how Clinton’s weaknesses mirror Trump’s strengths, and vice versa.
Trump’s biggest vulnerability is that voters are worried about his temperament and intellectual grasp of the relevant issues. If he can demonstrate a fraction of Clinton’s policy chops and steadiness, it would go very, very far to reassure doubters. Clinton’s most significant challenge is to convince voters that underneath the animatronic facade (and reputation for dishonesty) there’s a real person in there.
These are, essentially, mirror problems. No one can deny he’s all personality. Meanwhile, she has a seven-point presentation explaining that she has one.
Predictions are foolish in this politically ridiculous year. But I think it’s a safe bet that by the time the debates are over, both camps will declare their candidate the winner.
Beyond the meaningless declarations of victory, Team Clinton will likely also insist that Clinton exposed her opponent’s dismayingly shallow grasp of facts and policy. And, just as likely, Team Trump will shout that their guy pulled the mask off “crooked Hillary” and exposed her for the corrupt and duplicitous woman that she is.
Given the awful choices before us, both will probably be right.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Reach him at JonahsColumn@aol.com.