Wow. As the fives of loyal PPFA readers well know, this site has been pretty anti-Trump for over a year now. I had been constantly floored by his ignorance, made incredulous by his nonsensical answers, and laughed out loud at his and others’ firm belief that Donald Trump should be President of the United States. But then last night happened. And I saw him side by side with Crooked Hillary Clinton. I saw him take her best shots and keep moving forward. I saw how he persevered despite the biased moderator, and I saw him come through it looking stronger than he had before. And now I’m a convert. He won me over. I’m voting for Donald Trump.
Nah, just kidding, he was bad.
Last night’s debate was close to Scenario 3, although I’d say Trump acquitted himself just a bit better than Scenario 3 suggested, while Clinton’s strong performance is tempered by allegations of Lester Holt’s favoritism.
These allegations are not totally inaccurate. Clinton should count herself lucky that she only once needed to defend her email scandal, and that defense was a short, tightly scripted response that did not receive any sort of push back. Additionally, the words “Benghazi” and “Clinton Foundation” were never uttered. The other glaring omission, meanwhile, was Trump’s bread and butter issue — illegal immigration. Now, we don’t know if Holt would have raised any of these issues had he been given an extra half hour to make up for earlier segments going over their allotted time, but it would have been a lot to fit in. Though Trump has taken the high road on Holt’s performance, his campaign and pro-Trump media sources have not.
Therefore, be receptive to a Trumpeter’s complaints this morning. After all, they’ve woken up to a morning where their candidate showed he did not belong on the same stage as his opponent, and they’re searching for an excuse as to why that is. Many of us expected such a juxtaposition; last night was just confirmation. Regardless of Holt’s performance, Clinton was on her game and Trump was not. In short, it wouldn’t have mattered if the Clinton Foundation came up; she would have had her answer down cold, and Trump would not have stood still listening to it.
The Twitter feed of Fox News’s Frank Luntz charted Trump’s worst moments with Luntz’s famed focus group and the approval dials of Trump supporters, Clinton supporters, and independents. He describes Trump “tanking” when trying to explain his support of birtherism (Luntz noted Clinton did better on the topic with Trump supporters than Trump did!), the damage he was taking because of his “thin skin,” how his tax returns excuse “weakened” him, how Clinton’s ISIS response did better with Trump supporters than they did with Clinton’s, how Clinton’s declaration to work with allies played better than Trump’s NATO criticisms, and how Trump’s attempt at explaining how Clinton doesn’t have the looks/stamina to be president sent his numbers down across the board. (There were no comments on Trump’s quasi-apophasis toward the end of the night, saying he would not bring up personal Clinton scandals.) As much as Trump and his supporters want to insist (wish?) people don’t care about some of these losing issues — yes, they do.
And yet, not all is lost for the Trump Campaign. Not even close. First, it’s worth noting that nothing in that debate caused Trump supporters to change their minds. Remember, he didn’t dominate the Republican Primary by hoisting his campaign onto the narrow shoulders of his policy knowledge. He did it by speaking in simple terms to a sizable group of voters who feel this country is being taken from them and transformed, often with the full knowledge and even consent of Washington insiders.
Trump was at his best when he reminded everyone that politics as usual got us into this mess, which means politics as usual won’t get us out. Clinton has been around a long time. Many of the problems Americans lament happened on her watch during Clinton’s 20 years as First Lady, New York Senator, and Secretary of State. Last night was a clear reminder that Clinton is a polished politician and Trump is a newcomer who resembles whatever the opposite of polished is, which his supporters think is a favorable contrast. His 39 to 46 percent in the polls are staying put. After all, the strongest Trump supporters in Luntz’s focus group said, “He did bad, but I’m anti-Hillary.”
Second, he can get better, and if he wants to avoid embarrassment — which has to be running through his mind — he will be more prepared next time. (“If there is a next time,” Camp Clinton worries.) That was his first one-on-one debate. Clinton was much more prepared, a fact I keep seeing being held against her by Trump’s people, despite her best moment of the night: she proclaimed that it’s good to be prepared for things like debates and being president. Being prepared helps. (For all the embarrassments 2016 has provided, that was a moment you would actually want American students to see. You don’t have to be “too cool for school,” kids. It’s okay to study. It’s okay to try.)
So will he prepare next time? Will he let it look like he’s preparing? I eagerly await his decision on that front.
Among the tactics to learn will have to be the art of the pivot. Sure, Holt didn’t bring up Benghazi or the Clinton Foundation, but that shouldn’t stop Trump from finding ways to inject them into the debate. That’s part of the skill of debating and, for that matter, negotiating: forcing an issue. For example, when cyber security came up, he should have taken a machete to her usage of a private email server, but instead he defended Russia against charges of hacking the DNC, forced us to picture a 400-pound man on his bed, told us how good his 10-year-old son is with computers, and made “cyber” a noun. Frankly, Holt bringing up cyber security was a softball for Trump, but Trump forgot his bat in the dugout.
It goes without saying that this race is far from over. Remember, it’s still a “change election.” Trump’s marked contrast with Clinton was a clear reminder that he is an agent of change, and we can expect that to be a theme of his campaign over these last six weeks. Two more debates like this one, though, and he won’t have convinced enough undecided voters that he can deliver the change the country needs.