A Former White House Press Secretary Tells You What To Watch For Tonight

Photo Courtesy of Fox News.
We're just hours away from the first presidential debate of the 2016 election.

The 90-minute showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is expected to attract a record-crushing number of viewers on TV and online. And it could lead to make-or-break moments for either campaign given the closeness of the race.

We asked Dana Perino, a former White House press secretary and co-host of Fox News' The Five, and I'll Tell You What, a new on-air spin-off of her popular podcast, to share her take on what's at stake. Ahead, Perino dishes on the homework each candidate needs to do ahead of the debate, and on her own essentials — and companion — for viewing the rhetorical rumble.

One of the things I learned working at the White House is that Americans want to like their president. They like to choose the person they’d most enjoy having dinner with.

Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary
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First of all, what’s at stake? Why does this debate matter?
"Going into Monday night’s debate, the presidential race is a toss-up. While Clinton maintains a small lead in national polls, Trump has improved his standing in the battleground states. With nearly 100 million people watching the debate Monday night, the stakes are very high.

"This debate is important because so many unanswered questions remain about how each of these two candidates would govern. One of the things I learned working at the White House is that Americans want to like their president. They like to choose the person they’d most enjoy having dinner with. In this current, polarized environment, it will be very interesting to see which candidate can pass that test."

[Clinton] will not win if she gets into the weeds on policy with Trump — she must stick to articulating the overarching issues.

Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary
In your opinion, what questions have Trump and Clinton each been the worst at answering in the past? What kind of homework should they be doing before this debate?
"Hillary Clinton has not yet been able to get on the offense regarding the controversy over her emails, and that has hurt her. In a recent Quinnipiac survey, 77% of millennials said she was not honest and trustworthy.

"Donald Trump is the master of imprecise rhetoric, and in longer form interviews, he can say a lot of words without having to be held to particulars. But in a presidential debate, given format and the rules, he will be pinned down on some specifics.

"Clinton has [a] tendency to over-prepare with policy details. As one debate professional said, the smaller her debate prep book is, the better off she will be. She will not win if she gets into the weeds on policy with Trump — she must stick to articulating the overarching issues.

"Trump has the opposite problem — he articulates overarching principles well, but he lacks policy depth, which a lot of his supporters don’t mind, but a broader audience might find concerning. They should both eat a nutritious meal an hour and a half before game time. It is definitely not a good idea to go into a high-pressure event on an empty stomach. (And I suggest not introducing any new foods to your palette, which could prove disastrous!)"

Trump has the opposite problem — he articulates overarching principles well, but he lacks policy depth, which a lot of his supporters don’t mind, but a broader audience might find concerning.

Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary
What crucial question doesn't typically get asked, but should?
"I personally would want to ask this question of both candidates: As president and commander in chief, what do you think would be the most likely problem to keep you up at night? The reason I would ask that is it helps voters understand what the candidates themselves see as their greatest responsibility and as their greatest challenge."

What’s the most overrated question you've heard during debates in the past?
"Debate questions often have to do with current events. So, while they may be similar, it really does depend on the state of the economy and national security. The most important questions are always ones that demonstrate the character of a candidate, and how they approach decision-making in the White House.

"One of the best questions was famously asked by Ronald Reagan in the final presidential debate of 1980: 'Are you better off today than you were four years ago?' But now that almost 70% of Americans believe [the] country is on the wrong track heading in the wrong direction, candidates are no longer compelled to ask that question. Americans expect more. They want better performance for the economy, more competence in government, more safety for their families. True American spirit involves always challenging our leaders to do more and to do better."
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After the celebration on January 20, 2017, I recommend that [the] next president spend some time alone in the Oval Office accepting the weight of responsibility that comes with the job.

Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary
What's your advice for moderator Lester Holt? Will he be able to fact-check and hold candidates accountable in real time?
"I hope that Lester Holt is able to block out the criticism of him before the debate has even been held. Both campaigns are trying to work the referees before the kickoff. There is no doubt Mr. Holt will be very prepared, and he has a wonderful demeanor. He will be able to moderate a conversation where he doesn’t need to be a fact-checker himself, but can set the conditions so that the candidates can fact-check each other."

You've spent some time in the White House yourself. It's been a tough campaign — any advice for the winning candidate once they get there, on how to bring the entire country together and lead?

"After the celebration on January 20, 2017, I recommend that [the] next president spend some time alone in the Oval Office accepting the weight of responsibility that comes with the job, and recognizing that while the campaign was fought with the support of your party, you are now president of the United States of America, and you are [a] leader for everybody. Then, I would take a look in the mirror and say that you want to maintain your integrity through your term as commander in chief. (And then I would order up the Roswell files and find out really happened!)"

And one fun question — we're giving our readers pointers on throwing the ultimate debate-watching party. What are your top essentials?
"My dog Jasper, a fully charged laptop for live-tweeting, a full glass of red wine, and companions who know when to keep their traps shut and when to speak up!"
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