Why Trump is lashing out over debates

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump's campaign is pushing to reschedule two of the presidential debates set for this fall
  • Rachel Sklar: Trump must know that in a head-to-head debate, Hillary Clinton will crush him

Rachel Sklar is a New York-based writer and co-founder of Change The Ratio, which aims to increase visibility and opportunity for women in tech and new media, and TheLi.st, a network and media platform for women. She is a volunteer for Hillary Clinton's campaign for the presidency. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)Donald Trump is complaining.

Of course, that's nothing new -- the notoriously thin-skinned Republican nominee is an inveterate pouter, openly sulking about perceived injustices like lawsuits presided over by "Mexican" judges, accurate press coverage and Megyn Kelly being mean to him. At 70, he may be the grumpiest old man on Twitter.
But give Trump his due -- he is a genius at steering the news cycle and, importantly, creating plausible deniability with his supporters. And right now, he is doing just that with the presidential debate schedule.
Rachel Sklar
You may have missed the story in the barrage of headlines about the Republican presidential nominee's feud with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, a Muslim couple and Gold Star family whose son was killed in Iraq, and who spoke out against Trump last week at the Democratic National Convention. (According to Trump, Khizr Khan has been very unfair to him. Sad!)
But there is a whole other supposed injustice being perpetrated against the Trump campaign -- the presidential debate schedule, which Trump claims Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have tried to rig so that two of the three debates coincide with NFL football games.
Has the schedule long been established, as it always is, by a bipartisan commission in conjunction with both parties? Or is Clinton an evil genius bending the debate schedule to her football-hating will?
Obviously the former. In fact, the schedule was established almost year ago, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which felt the need to take the unusual step of explaining and defending its process in a statement pushing back on Trump:
"The Commission on Presidential Debates started working more than 18 months ago to identify religious and federal holidays, baseball league playoff games, NFL games, and other events in order to select the best nights for the 2016 debate. It is impossible to avoid all sporting events, and there have been nights on which debates and games occurred in most election cycles. A debate has never been rescheduled as a result."
Not rigged, not unfair, and not unusual (unlike Mr. Trump as a candidate for any public office!). Yet the Trump campaign is digging in, supported by the Republican Party despite it having initially signed on to the schedule.
At first glance this would seem an unusual fight for Trump, considering his boasts of not needing the so-called low-rated media to reach voters. Never mind that social media, news reports, DVR and VOD would have the most ardent football-and-politics fan covered. But those who think that the orange-tinged emperor has no clothes may have a point, because Trump has a good reason to diss the debates: He probably wants to skip them.
Why? Because he doesn't want to go up against Hillary Clinton.
Despite disparaging Hillary Clinton as lacking the temperament of a winner (a temperament like his, of course) Trump must know that in a head-to-head debate, Clinton will crush him.
After all, Clinton is a tough and prepared opponent. If you don't believe me, listen to someone who has actually gone head to head with Clinton -- President Barack Obama, who has regularly called out her toughness as an opponent, most recently in his speech at last week's convention. She is also not easily baited, rattled or flustered. (Anyone who watched even a bit of her 11-hour Benghazi hearing testimony knows that.) It's the reason that a GIF of her brushing off her shoulder during the hearing went viral.
But it's not just because she's tough. As any debate aficionado will tell you, Clinton is a policy wonk who meticulously prepares for any and every matchup as she gets ready to walk onstage resplendent in her pantsuit of choice. She likes policy conversations, discussions of historical precedent, minutely nuanced discourse and, as she says, "sweating the details."
Donald Trump could not be more her opposite. His debate stock in trade is the belittling insult ("Little Marco" "low-energy" Jeb Bush, "Lyin' Ted" Cruz) with some brash generalizing thrown in (while also typically not actually answering the question posed). As a master of the medium, he knows that TV is not kind to those who are not in control -- and on a debate stage with a skilled and knowledgeable moderator and an arguably even more skilled and knowledgeable opponent, he would definitely not be in control.
Being on a debate stage is a little like being naked -- you have nothing to hide behind. It's just you, with only your brain and your gut - and how both react in the moment. Despite Trump's preening claims to success, smarts and temperament, a presidential debate against Hillary Clinton would likely show him to be unprepared, inexperienced, peevish and boorish.
He has, of course, shown himself to be all of those things, but taking the debate stage against Hillary Clinton would likely reveal him as the one thing he fears above all else: weak.
So instead, Trump is lashing out at the debates themselves, impugning them as rigged against him, hedging against whatever is to come. Experts have said that skipping the debates is a risky move for Trump since voters consistently tell pollsters that they help them decide which candidate to support. But Trump has rewritten the regular rules of campaigning before, and no doubt will again.
In fact, in a way, Trump has already won -- he's forced the Commission on Presidential Debates to respond; he's railroaded the GOP into standing behind him; he's gotten pundits to agree that yes, football must not interrupt the sacred political ritual, or vice versa; he's put the "rigged" claim out there.
But the truth is that that's the closest Donald Trump will come to winning these debates. The question is whether his supporters will agree.