Eight years ago, before she became a national punchline, Sarah Palin debated Joe Biden in the sole vice presidential debate of that campaign season. Among a variety of responses that were barely linked to the questions she was asked, Palin described the role of the vice president like so:
“Well, our Founding Fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there.”
A team of forensic scientists are still, today, attempting to decipher what exactly she was talking about. Based on the post-mortems written about the campaign, we know that Palin memorized canned answers to various questions and pivoted to those answers regardless of moderator Gwen Ifill's questions, giving us a series of non-sequiturs and patriotic bumper stickers rather than thoughtful answers. But her "role of the vice president" response was especially egregious given the fact that she was running for that post, and yet didn't understand its job description. (Indeed, several other times following the debate, her answer to that question grew progressively less coherent. The next day, Palin told Fox News that the vice president "will be able to be not only the position flexible," whatever the hell that means.)
Nevertheless, the post-debate analysis on cable news and elsewhere was abundantly kind to Palin, given that she didn't blurt the N-word or choke on her own vomit. While snap polls of debate viewers contradicted the pundits, giving Biden the victory, viewers also said Palin was more likable by a margin of 54 to 36. And an astonishing 84 percent of viewers said Palin exceeded expectations, even though her answers had little or no bearing on Ifill's questions on top of her "role of the vice president" gibberish.
Likewise, it's safe to assume the political press will scramble to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt following tonight's debate at Hofstra University. As long as Trump doesn't blurt a show-stopper — something so horrendous that it's absolutely unavoidable to say he was destroyed by it — he'll successfully defy his rock-bottom expectations and therefore he'll be seen by more than a few cable news people as having tied with Clinton or, in some cases, having topped her. The expectations game is sad and loathsome, but we can't deny that it exists, or that it tends to too easily seep into the gray matter of swing voters.
If Trump can maintain his recent shift toward scripted teleprompter speeches, spoken at a less shouty and more whispery volume, the political press will applaud him for it, thus influencing the audience reaction, while also giving him an advantage over Clinton, who will clearly be more substantive. It's her thing. Even though he's apparently rejected debate prep, he's been reading his prompter speeches long enough to have memorized a few of the less incendiary chunks, making it possible for him to stick with that brand of content.
Unfortunately for him, it's not nearly enough material to survive the 90-minute debate without reverting to his erratic, clownish primary debate style, complete with smirky faces and pejorative interruptions. Even if he dips into his lizard brain, and as long as he doesn't repeat any of his more disgusting remarks about gold-star families, war heroes or Mexican rape stereotypes, however, he'll still have an advantage because his expectations are subterranean. He'll still be able to get away with murder because the political press, and way too many voters, expect Trump to be Trump. If Sarah Palin could weasel her way through her televised debate without being excoriated in the press for totally bungling, among other things, the job description of the vice president, then Trump's usual array of lies and nonsensical policy proposals will be brushed aside as not just passable, but normal.
We can definitely expect a log-jam of lies from Trump and not enough time to cover all of them. As my friend Stephanie Miller from "The Stephanie Miller Show" said the other day, it'll be like a tennis-ball machine of horrible things. Mitt Romney pulled a similar stunt in his first debate against Barack Obama in 2012, and it nearly crippled the president in what turned out to be a low point in his otherwise successful political career. It's not difficult to predict that Trump, who possesses far less integrity than Romney, will do the same, making it nearly impossible for either Hillary or moderator Lester Holt to fact-check and debunk him as they go. The debate would have to be extended to 11 hours to fully react to what's sure to be a conga-line of mendacious nonsense.
It won't matter, though, because it's expected. All of Trump's familiar lies, his offensively unworkable ideas and unintentionally hilarious superlatives will pass without much notice — unless something new and shiny jumps off the screen and coldcocks the audience.
For Trump to lose this thing, Clinton has no choice but to seize the initiative and outflank Trump at nearly every turn. He can't be allowed to seize the initiative and control the debate himself. The key to a clear-cut Clinton victory, and an accompanying bounce in the polls, will be for her to nail him from from the very start. She can't allow reacting to Trump to become the centerpiece of the debate. She has to force him to react inappropriately to her. He can't be allowed to turn the debate into the Trump Show.
She has to use his own words against him, while making sure to corner him on policy details. What we've seen so far is that Trump reacts poorly when he feels trapped or belittled, and, if Clinton can work in some of his greatest hits, he'll double down on those statements: his criticisms of the Khan family or of Clinton's allegedly non-presidential "look," to name a few. Frankly, I'd love to see him wiggle around the story that he's nukes-curious — one of many Trump stories to get lost in the tennis-ball machine fusillade.
In other words, if Clinton can trick Trump into repeating a few of his most appalling statements, possibly amplifying the awfulness of those remarks, while also embarrassing himself on policy details, it'll make it extraordinarily difficult for cable news analysts like Mark Halperin, Chuck Todd or John King to spin the debate into an even-Steven draw.
Don't forget, and at the risk of tinkering with the bullshit expectations game, Clinton is a superb debater. In 2008, she managed to win nearly every debate against Barack Obama, and she certainly held significant advantages over Bernie Sanders, especially on foreign policy. But this time, she absolutely needs to bring it. There's too much at stake for Hillary to fumble this one, not unlike Obama's botched debate against Romney in 2012. Expectations, as annoying as they are, are stacked against her, given that Trump has been allowed to play by his own rules while she's forced to play by the more strict pre-2016 rules of presidential politics.
One way or another, this could be the most eventful and most impactful presidential debate of the modern era. And it can't be merely a loss for Trump — it has to be a nearly undisputed win for Hillary. No pressure, but a victory for Hillary means a victory for the world, and I suspect the world will be watching very closely.