First, there was no way Hillary Clinton’s scandal plagued presidential campaign was going to finish off Donald Trump last night. The best she could hope for was to reinvigorate herself a bit. Trump on the other hand, had the opportunity to end the race it there but didn’t. In that regard, I think it has to be viewed as a missed opportunity for Trump, and therefore a ‘win’ for Hillary.
It was her venue, and her format. It’s the thing that she does best and until last night, he had never done at all. She had a moderator willing to put a little thumb on the scales, and a sympathetic blue state crowd. Trump was doing this for the very first time. I think both campaigns will come away from it competitive, but it will cost Trump some momentum.
More than anything it was like couples therapy. “Shut up and listen to your husband” is something couples therapists have said… never. It’s an industry run by women that embraces the post-feminist worldview, and is designed to do nothing but explain to men in something resembling rational terms, what they’re doing wrong. It’s a frame adjustment that starts and ends on the women’s point of view. Lester Holt was a less bias woman than he could have been, but he was still very much a chick, like all men in the mainstream media. He had to give it a bit of Candy Crowley just as insurance. But I don’t think it made much difference.
Trump’s biggest opponent last night was Trump. He was all of the worst of who he is, and none of the best. He let Hillary bait him into being defensive about his accomplishments which was a huge mistake when the time could have been spent talking about her emails, which were more or less ignored. When she said everyone suffers from implicit bias he should have interrupted and said “are you saying everyone is a racist?”
All missed opportunities.
With all that said, I don’t think he’ll make those mistakes again. I think the next Trump will keep a tighter control of his frame, and do much better at controlling the direction of the conversation. What’s more, I think Hillary knows how lucky she got. She gave it her best and did well, but she didn’t have to contend with her worst fears. There was that single moment when the emails were mentioned and she took on that rictus grin of a woman caught red handed, but it only lasted a moment. It could have been a whole night like that but Trump couldn’t close it.
He was FAR too defensive about his business and his wealth. That was by far his biggest mistake. His entire pitch for his tax returns should have been “Right now I’m a private citizen with a responsibility to my company and it’s employees. Since that’s so, I will heed my lawyers advice on this and wait till the audit is over, unless Hillary releases her emails in which case I’ll go against my lawyers advice and release them right away.” That’s it. All the defensiveness and apologizing just makes it look like Hillary is onto something.
And it’s also worth mentioning what last night was not. The traditional way the aftermath of a debate goes is that the Republican is compelled to provide specifics, and the subsequent few days are spent with the media using all that rope to strangle him. They spin, spin, spin, spin, spin until he’s too tangled to continue to fight. This is why they want Trump’s tax returns. They want to pour over it to make him look bad. He’s smart to not release it. Even his vagueness about his policies would be a strong position if he were just a bit more strategic about it and less flailing.
That dynamic didn’t occur with Trump last night, bot the positive and the negative. The press has no new ‘gotcha’ line to hang him with. In that respect the debate against the media went pretty well for him because it denied Hillary a great number of her foot soldiers, who all still don’t know what to do with Trump.
But if he wants to finish her, he’ll need to be better next time. He needs to stop hearing her, stop responding, and start leading the conversation. It should never be about him, only her. He should quit worrying about promoting himself and instead, act as our advocate to expose her. The press never will, and if he does, it will increase the level of public confidence in him. It will make him look honest – something we never think a politician is. And I think that’s the thing that will help undecided forgive his ‘big picture’ view.
Trump was obviously running on all instinct, with only a minimum of prep. That’s fine, and now that he understands what to expect and has the tapes to go over, he’ll do better next time. Hillary is good at making her case in couples therapy, and will easily persuade the sympathetic moderator. Trump needs to remember that this isn’t the conversation he should care about. It isn’t about him, it’s about her. He should see it as him and the American people against Hillary and the press. That's actually the argument, and if he can have that conversation with the folks at home, he can very much still pull this out.
Last night I heard no fat lady. And that means it’s still anyone’s ball game.
PS – For those of you in the know, I sent an email to friend of the blog VV last night to mention how much Trump's performance reminded me of our common friend Jose. If you know him, I think you’ll know precisely what that means.