TIME politics

How Donald Trump Can Defeat Hillary Clinton in the First Debate

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., on Sept. 19, 2016.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., on Sept. 19, 2016.

Frank Luntz is a news analyst and contributor to CBS News and the Fox News Channel

Apologize and attack

Mr. Trump:

I’ll be blunt. Never before have expectations been lower and the stakes higher for a presidential debate candidate than they are for you. The good news: everyone expects you to stumble—even some of the people preparing you for your debate. Your mission now is to move from prosecutor to presidential. Righteous indignation will be appropriate at times, but not all the time. You can’t be the same guy who ridiculed your Republican opponents. That’s not what undecided voters want to hear. Americans know you represent change. This debate is the chance to prove that you can make it happen—and your opponent … can’t.

Read more: How Hillary Clinton Can Defeat Donald Trump in the First Debate

Before I get to specific language, let’s discuss tone. Whether they love you, hate you, or are still looking for a reason to vote for you, everyone wants to tune in to hear what you have to say. So as you walk on the stage, consider this: you do not need to shock with spectacle. You need to surprise with sincerity. Be the voice of the forgotten, hardworking taxpayer that has been ignored and betrayed by Washington. Allow me to be blunt: if you fall back on your old habits from the Republican debates and your off-script, off-the-cuff, off-the-rails personal insults from the campaign trail, you will alienate the cautious, concerned non-Republican voters you need.

Now, a word of warning. Your opponents will attempt to pin you down on the policy nuisances and details of your proposals. Be prepared to defend them. From making Mexico pay for the wall to your ideas for healthcare reform, you must be clear and concise in your explanation. The debate moderators will be tough. They will interrupt. They will demand specifics. Be prepared to provide them.

So let’s start with your opening. You only have two minutes, and you need to show viewers not only that you get it, but that your opponent doesn’t. Millions of voters will focus on the choice in front of them for the first time. So your opening is critical:

It is humbling to be standing on this stage. When we started a movement to hold Washington accountable, I never dreamed that it would lead here. But thanks to tens of millions of Democrats, Independents and Republicans, it has. There is so much work to be done to fix what Washington has broken, and it must be done by all of us, together.

There was a time we build cars in Flint and couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Today, we can’t drink the water in Flint and we make cars in Mexico. My opponent will tell you that America is safer and more secure today than it was eight years ago. That thanks to Obamacare, healthcare is so much cheaper today than eight years ago. That good, high paying jobs are so much more plentiful than eight years ago. But you know the truth.

We can continue down the path of a government in Washington that is more concerned with protecting political contributors than American workers … or we can try a new road. You can talk about change, or you can vote for it—and make it happen.

At some point early in the debate, perhaps even in response to the first question, you will need to show humility. It’s not enough to be Commander-in-Chief. Voters want to know that there is a heart behind the bluster. So with the parents of the Benghazi victims in the front row (and your family behind them), it’s time to say the words “I apologize.” You’re going to bristle at what I recommend, but please consider it:

I begin with an apology. You judge a person by what matters most to them. For my opponent, it is her donors from Washington and Wall Street. For me, it is the men and women in uniform who are responsible for our freedoms. Tonight, I want to reach out to the Kahn family to express my deepest apologies. You have made the greatest sacrifice a family can in the defense of freedom, and I will do everything I can to earn your forgiveness. I also want to publicly apologize to John McCain. I was wrong to minimize your sacrifice. We all owe you our respect and our gratitude. It is because of men like you that America is free today.

Mrs. Clinton, I have recognized where I have gone wrong and shared my mistakes with the American people. Will you? Sitting in the front row where my family would normally be sitting are the parents of the men killed in Benghazi. They have suffered so much. Will you apologize to them for saying “What does it matter?” Will you ask their forgiveness for not coming to their aid when they needed it? And will you publicly apologize to the American people for putting your State Department server in your home and jeopardizing national security, and accepting donations from some of the most horrific governments and people for the Clinton Foundation.

Americans deserve genuine accountability. I am willing to admit when I am wrong. Are you?

You’ll read the word accountability many times in this document because that is your strength and her weakness. Business people are held accountable every single day by customers, employees, and the communities we serve. Politicians? Never. And Hillary Clinton’s consistent, persistent refusal to accept accountability is her downfall. So consider the following when appropriate:

I want you to remember the number 278. Write that down—278. That’s the number of days my opponent went without holding a single press conference. Eight months! The last time a presidential candidate went that long … is never. Why do you refuse to level with the American people? Why must every admission be either dragged out of you or met with stonewalling that would make Richard Nixon blush? Don’t voters have the right to know where you truly stand? Don’t they have the right to hold you accountable?

I take questions from anyone, anywhere. Some people think I talk too much, and they’re probably right. (Smile) But refusing to be questioned or challenged? That’s just wrong. And if this is what you do as a candidate, imagine what you will do as President.

You’ll notice that there are a lot of rhetorical questions in this document. That’s because asking the right questions can be even more powerful than answering them—particularly from someone often seen as too aggressive. If she lets these questions go unanswered, you win.

To be clear, attacking Clinton in every question will not win you the debate, or the election. It is critical for you to understand that the undecideds are more uneasy with your temperament than your policies. But that is also your biggest opportunity. If you tell people exactly what you would do on Day One of your presidency, it will be much easier for skeptical Americans to imagine (and therefore vote for) you as President.

Your single greatest strength is a clear understanding of the principles of business. Apply that skill to the economic issue that more Americans care about than any other: ending wasteful Washington spending. Your “Penny Plan” for deficit reduction, cutting one cent out of every dollar spend on every government program, is a strong first step, but you have to go deeper. Once again, the attribute Americans want more than any other in their government: accountability. The place they want it most: the federal budget. The proposal that will get everyone talking is “a forensic audit of federal government.” So start with a question that you want Americans asking, and then deliver what Americans want most:

Do you know why the lobbyists, lawyers and special interests in Washington want Hillary Clinton, and not me? It’s because of their handouts, bailouts, and carve-outs that are making them rich at our expense. Let me say this as clear as I can so even the most entrenched fat-cat lobbyist can hear: if I’m elected president, your days are done. My message to you is simple: you’re fired.

I’m a businessman. Unlike these career politicians, I know how to balance a budget. Therefore, my very first act on my very first afternoon as president will be to demand an independent, forensic audit of the entire federal budget — line by line, dollar by dollar, program by program. And we’ll bring in the TV cameras so that the American people can see how their tax dollars are truly spent … and wasted. If something doesn’t work, then we’ll cut it. If the bureaucrats are mismanaging your money, they’ll be fired.

Too many people listening to this debate are working paycheck-to-paycheck, struggling to get by. I make this commitment tonight: you will never be forgotten again. You work too damn hard for these politicians and bureaucrats. It’s time they work for you.

The most important moment of the debate is your opening because, frankly, no one knows what you are going to say. As a dealmaker, you know that the next most important moment will be your close, when you get a chance to demonstrate for the last time why America needs a successful businessman now more than ever. Once again, I urge you to personalize your approach, clearly defining the differences between you and your opponent:

Unlike my opponent, I haven’t spent my entire life thinking about politics or how I can become President. Unlike my opponent, I haven’t spent the last quarter-century wheeling and dealing in Washington, or begging for money from Wall Street. My life has been spent imagining, creating and building in the city and the country I love.

It’s interesting that the Clinton campaign slogan says ‘I’m with her.’ I think that’s backwards. I think that’s what’s wrong with Washington.

I want everyone watching this debate to know, ‘I’m with YOU.’ I will listen to you. I will learn from you. I will work for you. And I will fight for you. I’m not afraid of Washington, but they should be very, very afraid of me.

Hillary Clinton has been a professional Washington Insider for a quarter-century. Politicians like her and special interest friends created this mess. It’s time for an outsider and a businessman to clean it up.

Every word in these recommended statements is intentional. It is the language the American people want to hear, but haven’t yet heard from you. Voters respect you when you speak truth to power; they resent you when you stray into personal insults and disrespect. Be presidential. If you strike the right balance, you won’t just exceed expectations. You’ll win the debate—and the election.

This is your moment. Seize it and own it.

Tap to read full story

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com


YOU BROKE TIME.COM!

Dear TIME Reader,

As a regular visitor to TIME.com, we are sure you enjoy all the great journalism created by our editors and reporters. Great journalism has great value, and it costs money to make it. One of the main ways we cover our costs is through advertising.

The use of software that blocks ads limits our ability to provide you with the journalism you enjoy. Consider turning your Ad Blocker off so that we can continue to provide the world class journalism you have become accustomed to.

The TIME Team