How Other Candidates Broke The Rules of Debating, and Why Trump Won't Be Held to The Same Rules

When Trump breaks those same rules, it won't matter because, 'Oh well! Trump will be Trump!'
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When Trump breaks those same rules, it won't matter because, 'Oh well! Trump will be Trump!'

As we've discussed at length recently, Donald Trump has somehow defied nearly all rules and expectations for presidential candidates. Between the Mariana Trench-level expectations game played by both the political press and roughly 45 percent of American voters, and the fact that Trump simply isn't being held to the same set of traditional campaign rules as Hillary Clinton, it shouldn't come as any surprise when cable news genuflects to Trump's debate performance tonight.

When we talk about "the rules," we're talking about the often unwritten standards and practices to which nearly all presidential candidates are held when running. For example, candidates are expected release their tax returns. They’re expected to speak using a particularly even-keeled tone of voice. They’re expected to hold a few press conferences along the way. They’re expected to shift to a more centrist posture for the general election. They’re expected to behave in a way that won’t offend minorities and mainstream Americans alike.

If they deviate from any of these rules (and there are many other rules and traditions) they’re pilloried by cable news talkers and political reporters who are career motivated to feed dramatic beef to the ratings beast.

But not Trump.

For 16 months now, Trump has brazenly defied nearly all of the rules and yet his poll numbers invariably grow each time. The only exception was the fallout from attacking the Khans -- gold star parents who lost their only son in the war. That was it. Since then, his margin against Hillary Clinton has climbed back to within a point or two. This is due specifically to the public and the press refusing to punish him for violating every rule of decency and decorum which we've previously applied to every candidate ever, regardless of party.

And we shouldn't expect the reaction to tonight's debate to be any different. 

As a brief history lesson, here now are five debate moments that became known as undisputed campaign killers. In some cases, such as with Dan Quayle in 1988, his ticket went on to win, but his career was over after the subsequent 1992 election.

RULE VIOLATION: President George H.W. Bush checked his watch in 1988.

The news media, and subsequently the Democrats, turned innocuous watch-checking into a major example of President Bush being out of touch and disinterested in the issues affecting average Americans. It more or less sealed his fate as a one-term president.

RULE VIOLATION: Dan Quayle compared his Senate experience to JFK's in 1988.

Oddly enough, Dan Quayle's Senate experience was, in fact, lengthier that JFK's Senate experience. But the point he was trying to make was that due to his experience, his youth and lack of intellect were irrelevant. Despite having served for more years in the Senate than JFK, there's simply no way Quayle was equally qualified in terms of smarts and savvy as the late President Kennedy.

RULE VIOLATION: Al Gore sighing and trying to intimidate George W. Bush in 2000.

I don't know what then-Vice President Al Gore was thinking when he repeatedly sighed during his first debate with George W. Bush, or when he awkwardly approached Bush during a townhall debate. Both moves backfired against Gore, and even though he won the popular vote, he was stripped of the election by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

RULE VIOLATION: President Obama was a little slow on the uptake in 2012.

Mitt Romney was sharp and on-form during the first debate of the 2012 general election, but based on various fact-checkers, it was merely because he was lying with such fluidity that it clearly caught the president off guard. It also didn't help that Obama had just flown to Denver that day and wasn't able to acclimate to the altitude. It nearly ended his re-election campaign, but strong performances in the next two debates erased nearly all of the damage.

RULE VIOLATION: Romney described his campaign as having "binders full of women."

Romney stepped into this one, and in addition to his "47 percent" remark it's widely regarded as the pair of gaffes that ended his campaign. Imagine that. Two misstatements. Trump blurts at least two terrible things every hour on the hour.

There are, of course, many other examples. Nixon's sweating, Admiral Stockdale's hearing aid, Gerald Ford's "Soviet bloc" gaffe, and so on. I think you get the idea. How often have we watched in frustration as Donald Trump has blundered his way into mistakes like these -- and many others that are far, far worse? Maybe once a day, at least. And yet he's within one or two points of Hillary Clinton?

None of this is to suggest that the previous candidates were treated unfairly. Some were unfairly judged and others weren't. The bottom line, however, is they were all judged based on similar rules that were applied to candidates of both parties, across many elections. Trump isn't. Both the political press and too many voters alike are giving him enormously unprecedented latitude to do whatever the hell he wants, and yet he bitches about being treated unfairly. The lament of a bully.

Nevertheless, when you're watching and reading about the reactions to the debate, take note at how Hillary Clinton is evaluated based on the same set of rules we used for Romney, Bush, Obama, McCain and so forth. But when Trump breaks those same rules, it won't matter because, Oh well! Trump will be Trump!

And don't let Matt Taibbi and others downplay the influence of the political press when it comes to voter attitudes. The role of the press, and the reason it's named in the First Amendment, is to adequately and independently inform the people of who these candidates are and what they believe. The very nature of this role demands equal and fair application of both the rules and what we should expect from the candidates in term of how they comport themselves. So far, the press has mostly failed on this front, and it's failed in the face of perhaps the most dangerous presidential candidate in modern history.

The only way Trump is going to lose this election is if we all do our part to underscore the toxicity of Donald Trump and the comparative experience of Hillary Clinton. No one else will do it. It's up to you and you alone.