Cheer Up, Trump Fans!
After the first presidential debate four years ago between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the president’s supporters were frustrated with their candidate for not bringing up Romney’s infamous “47%” remark. Last night, it was Trump’s supporters’ turn to feel frustrated: somehow, their candidate neglected to mention some of the most familiar attacks on Hillary Clinton — particularly, about Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation.
Four years ago, I argued that bringing up the 47% remark — or Bain Capital — would have simply provided a prepared Romney an opportunity to respond with a rehearsed line before an audience of millions. Last night, Trump denied a prepared Hillary an opportunity to respond to the Benghazi accusations and attacks over the Clinton Foundation and spin them to her advantage. The Clintons’ greatest asset has always been Republicans who can’t help but overplay their hand. It helped Bill Clinton survive the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for instance. And last night, Hillary made use of her best comeback to questions about her stamina when she reminded the audience about her 11 hour testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, itself a product of Republican overreach. Partisans are disappointed — but undecided voters were probably relieved not to hear the all too familiar attacks.
The main thrust of Hillary’s argument against Trump is that he doesn’t have the temperament to be president — and polls show that a majority of voters agree with her. Going into the debate, Trump, above all, needed to show that he can control his temper; that he is not the caricature that the Clinton campaign has created in the minds of voters of someone who has short fuse and would start a nuclear war over a tweet. For Hillary to win on the issue of temperament, she needed for Trump to have a meltdown, and the most she managed — despite her best attempts at baiting him — was for him to become a little defensive. This is simply not good enough. Trump also showed great restraint at the very end, when he decided not to respond in kind to Hillary’s small-ball attacks over what Trump has said about women. On the issue of temperament, Trump met his objective. Hillary did not.
Trump’s best moment was at the beginning, when he dominated on the issues of trade and jobs. Hillary simply looked out of her depth when it comes to economic issues, and had to, once again, reach for her husband’s record or risk drowning. Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes runs through the Rust Belt — thus, it was absolutely vital that he not lose any ground on the issue of trade. On TPP, Trump scored his best points of the night, while Hillary dug a bit of a hole for herself by downplaying her enthusiasm for the agreement. Polls consistently show that jobs and the economy are the top concerns in voters’ minds. Hillary landed some blows once the debate moved away from the economy, yes — but voters will not vote for or against Trump based on whether he’s released his tax returns, or old lawsuits, or birtherism. Believe me.
Last night Hillary had the tougher task. Some said she needed to come across as more likeable, but that’s a tall order for someone who has been on the national scene for as long as her. Opinions about her are basically set in stone. The best she could do was to achieve two objectives: first, to cause Trump to lose his cool, and second, to show that she has a vision for America. She failed on both scores. The pundit class in DC was predictably impressed with her knowledgeable, poised presentation. Today, articles praising her for ‘doing her homework’ abound. But outside the Beltway, voters saw a traditional politician reciting the same old talking points that have resulted in failure at home and abroad. Trump neutralized Hillary’s many policy plans by simply reminding voters that she has been in politics for 30 years and has never delivered on her promises. Where Hillary succeeded was in putting to rest questions about her health. She looked great, and made it through the 90 minutes without a hair out of place — while Trump kept sipping water and wiping his upper lip. Taking a few days off the campaign trail paid off for her.
Disappointed Trump supporters need to keep in mind that their candidate had to walk a fine line while debating a female candidate. If he had counter-punched as hard as he did against his male opponents as he did during the primaries, he would have risked coming across as a bully. The one key voting group that he is struggling with is white college-educated women who normally vote Republican. Debates at this late stage of the process are not about pleasing voters whose minds are made up: they are about reaching beyond one’s base support. The best way to assess whether a debate performance was effective is whether a candidate achieved his or her objectives going into the face off, and on that score Trump prevailed last night.