DONALD TRUMP IS NOT A PERFECT FIT FOR THE TOWN HALL FORMAT
But He Craves the Media Attention and Thinks He Can Do No Wrong
American voters almost got ourselves a second presidential campaign debate this week, after all — the town hall format one scheduled for Miami Thursday, with C-SPAN’s great Steve Scully moderating — but then no.
Pres. Trump had pronounced himself cured of the coronavirus, healthy enough to travel, and eager to debate his Democratic opponent Joe Biden. But Biden had already accepted an ABC exclusive town meeting invitation instead, the official Presidential Debate Commission had cancelled the debate due to infection concerns, and now the president has just confirmed his own separate concurrent network town hall, but with NBC, which reportedly insisted first on independent testing of the president.
I confess I have been perplexed.
Trump, trailing Biden in too many swing states to count and trailing him badly nationally in all the polls, needs to debate Biden as many times as possible. Even a virtual format would have given him another chance to blunt the momentum of the former Vice President. Plus, he seems to relish debates as an outlet for his pugnacious (we could use other terms, too) personality.
The town hall format, however, enormously popular as it has become, is hardly made for the aggressive and brash style he so offensively displayed at that first mud-fight of a debate.
I should know.
I like to think my friend and old 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign colleague Jeff Eller and I all but invented the television town hall debate format. In fact, if I may write immodestly, it’s my opinion that we completely modernized the town hall meeting altogether.
Sure, Jimmy Carter had spoken to a few crowds in high school gyms or auditoriums in 1976 and as president as something of a throwback to the original town meetings of New England Colonial times. But Eller got local TV stations to host us and loop in their sister stations elsewhere in the same state or country, often creating our own loose networks if you will, and coaching them how to recruit truly undecided likely voters to participate as questioners in the audience.
Meanwhile, I took Clinton and put him on a small, only slightly raised platform in the middle of the television studio — a modern-day soapbox, if you will — with voters encircling him, amphitheater style. You could see voters at every height and every angle, almost no matter which way you (or the camera) looked. And when Clinton took questions from the audience, he would leave his bar-stool seat, walk toward the questioner, and answer each voter’s query as though there was no one else in the room. And if his back happened to be to the camera, so be it; he was talking directly to the voter who asked him something, not to the whole studio audience nor the television audience at home.
Perceptions that Clinton was empathetic, people-centered and feeling the pain of individuals as much as the country owe a lot to the town hall format.
Later, in debates that would replicate the format, Bill Clinton got it. Pres. George H.W. Bush of check-his-watch, when-is-this-thing-going-to-be-over fame, did not. Joe Biden, my candidate to win this year, gets it. He is an heir to Clinton’s brand of retail politics, even in an era where pressing the flesh has suddenly and sadly become a big no-no.
I do not think Donald Trump would understand this in a million years. He prefers to be in front of large and adoring crowds, where he may bask in their adulation; drone on indefinitely and avoid inconvenient lines of questioning. He also thrives on playing off the moderator, as he did with poor but normally very able Chris Wallace in the first debate — of course, to him and his base, just another Fake New journalist in the tank for Biden.
In a town hall format, who is Trump going to argue with? His opponent or the moderator — on the voters’ time, who just asked him a question? The voter herself? Will he say that was a rude question and call her names, like “nasty woman?” Again, the format is really not intended for his pugilist and egocentrism.
Trump, has of course, participated in town hall meetings and town hall debates. His performance in all the debates against Hillary Clinton — regardless of format — was largely panned. He stalked around the stage and grimaced in an effort to intimidate his rival. Since then, most of the town meetings that he has participated in have been with Fox News hosts who pre-screen audience members with softball questions.
In September, he left the conservative media sphere safe space to do an ABC town hall hosted by George Stephanopoulos, who not coincidentally was on that famous ’92 Bill Clinton campaign staff when we were first developing the very format. And this one went off the rails. Trump sparred with voters and came off as cavalier toward their suffering. He even tried to interrupt one of the questioners, who then cut him off. Warm and fuzzy, he is not.
But hey, if the president is foolish enough to do another town hall with voters, who am I to stop him? It’s a great format — if I may say so myself — to let us see the empathetic side of the candidates. If they have one.