The general election debates of the 2016 presidential race are on the horizon, and nobody really knows what to expect. Though Hillary Clinton says she’s preparing for two versions of Donald Trump — a nice one and a mean one — Trump swears he’ll be "very respectful" to Clinton at the debates. But you shouldn’t believe him, and here’s why.
It’s not because Trump has exhibited a seeming inability to show Clinton any form of respect whatsoever throughout this campaign — although that’s certainly true. And it’s not because Trump has a history of hurling personal, mean-spirited, below-the-belt insults at his opponents on debate stages, though this is true as well. The reason not to trust Trump is that he has absolutely no incentive to reveal how he plans to conduct himself at the debates. And neither does Clinton, for that matter. It’s in both of their interests to keep one another guessing.
The element of surprise is a powerful weapon for any debater. Some of the most memorable moments in presidential debate history came because a candidate caught their opponent off-guard with a well-timed joke, a surprising statistic, or unexpected rebuttal. And it’s hard to be surprising if you’ve told everyone ahead of time exactly how you’ll behave.
So, it is in both Trump and Clinton’s interests to mislead one another before the debates. If Clinton is indeed preparing to face off against both an aggressive and conciliatory Trump, there’s no reason for Trump to tip her off as to which one he’ll be. Why would he? That would make her debate preparation a lot easier, and Trump doesn’t want that.
What this means is that, when it comes to their public comments about the debates, you really can’t believe much of what either candidate says. We saw this in 2012, when Mitt Romney’s people told the New York Times that Romney would be firing off “a series of zingers” at the first debate. This turned out to be a misdirection — Romney was ultimately very restrained and serious at the first debate, and fired off few, if any, zingers.
By the way, it’s equally possible that Clinton isn’t preparing for two Trumps. For all we know, she and her campaign have already calculated that Trump is going to be less than kind, and simply said otherwise in order to deceive him. There’s a lot of game theory going on here for both candidates.
Trump could be telling the truth. Maybe he really is planning on putting on a nice face for his first forum with Clinton. But even if so, he can’t let Clinton be too sure that this is the case, and because Clinton knows this, she would be foolish to put too much faith in Trump’s comments.
When it comes to debates, both candidates need to take each other’s comments with a grain of salt. And we, the viewers, would be wise to do the same.