Everyone expects a lot of fireworks between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the debates. And whether or not ousted Fox News chief Roger Ailes officially consults Trump for the debates or not doesn't matter — If Trump (or Clinton for that matter) wants to win over voters in the debates, he would do well to take a page out of the Ailes playbook.
We are in the midst of a nasty, frightening, and generally depressing presidential election, with one side comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler and the other calling Clinton a corrupt criminal on a daily basis.
According to published reports, the Clinton campaign is expecting it to get even nastier, prepping the Democratic nominee to debate Trump by drilling her on the nastiest and most sensational accusations against her, including the death of former White House aide Vince Foster and, of course, President Bill Clinton's disastrous affair with then-intern Monica Lewinsky. He's probably the most unpredictable candidate we've ever seen on either side of the aisle, so some Democrats think he could also "spend 90 minutes berating Clinton for helping to found ISIS," according to an article on Politico.
Sure, there will be some voters who will be looking forward to that kind of train wreck of a debate spectacle. But if the debates get as rough as expected, a lot of people will likely get turned off in short order. The Clinton campaign will probably be OK with that as fewer people watching the debates would hurt Trump's chances to close the gap in the polls. But smaller debate audiences, or any sized audience seeing more of the depressing same, wouldn't do much to help what will become Clinton's much tougher job of creating some semblance of real support for her as opposed to just hate for Trump.
So, what is the killer play that Trump or Clinton could take from the Ailes playbook?
A joke. (Don't laugh….yet.)
In the 1984 presidential election, Ronald Reagan was leading Democratic challenger Walter Mondale comfortably in the polls until the first of their two debates on Oct. 7. Simply put, Reagan seemed confused and old during several moments of that debate and his lead in the polls started to shrink as a result. According to the pre-eminent Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, that's when the Reagan campaign called in Ailes for help as they prepped for the second debate two weeks later. And that's when Ailes presented President Reagan with genius-level advice: Tell a joke.
Remember that telling a good joke effectively requires quick wit and timing — not qualities you associate with being senile. Reagan had the opportunity to shed that impression with one well-placed punchline — and he took it.
Reagan, who had been a great joke teller all his life, scored one of the greatest moments in presidential debate history. He not only delivered a joke, but he told a self-deprecating joke about his age. The then-73 year old Reagan said: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
The quip touched on the elephant in the room and relieved the tension created by the debate moderator questioning Reagan about his age. It was so well delivered that even Mondale almost doubled over in laughter. It was that moment when the 1984 election went from an affair that might have been somewhat close, to the 500+ electoral vote landslide re-election triumph.
Fast forward to 2016: Trump's mental state has been in serious question by a number of pundits and critics for almost a year. Hillary Clinton's moral fitness for service after her email scandal and amidst growing "pay to play" questions about the Clinton Foundation is making even many traditional liberals more than just a little uncomfortable.
Given this atmosphere, the candidate who can relieve this tension with a joke — especially a self-deprecating joke — could really change the entire course of the election. What if, for example, if Trump started the debate with something like this:
I'd like to start by conceding to my opponent …
I concede that she, by a landslide, has better hair than I do. I mean, look at it! It's beautiful.
One well-placed, self-deprecating joke could give voters watching the debates something they desperately need right now: comic relief.
And, it would help the candidate who nails the punchline to connect with voters in a personal way that neither has been able to do so far.
It's hard to imagine either Trump or Clinton being willing to take a chance on comedy — especially self-deprecating humor — but if they did, that could go down as one of the best – and most unexpected – debate moments in history. And, it could turn the tide on this wild ride of an election, like it did for Reagan.
At some point, these candidates are going to have to realize that making babies cry and inspiring adults to Google "move to Canada" isn't working. And maybe – just maybe – your crazy Uncle Roger who makes corny jokes at Thanksgiving is on to something.