The real problem for Donald Trump in the presidential debates isn’t his temperament. It’s his narcissism. When tonight’s debate began, Trump was on solid ground, giving a message that essentially painted himself as a change agent and Hillary Clinton as a candidate of the status quo. As the debate went on, he took the bait again and again to defend himself on increasingly obscure subjects. Instead of blasting away at the core message of his campaign, he spent the evening stumbling in the weeds, and that is only his fault.
As I’m writing this, in the background there is unanimous opinion on the part of CNN’s nine observers this evening – overwhelmingly ideologically opposed to Trump – that she won the debate. Gloria Borger thinks that Hillary’s attacks on Trump’s taxes and paying contractors were “boom goes the dynamite” moments. Van Jones thinks Trump’s defense of Stop and Frisk was a huge “botch”. Anderson Cooper thinks it is very significant that Trump drank a lot of water and Hillary Clinton didn’t. This analysis is ludicrous. Are these people paid for this stupidity?
I think they are wrong: Trump lost this debate, and it was entirely up to him in the losing of it. Hillary Clinton did not have a good debate. She was not humanized by anything that happened tonight, and her modes of attack were very predictable and clunky. Her comments on foreign and domestic policy were robotic bullet points, and her statements seemed like rote memorized lines. Her points, particularly on economic and crime issues, were bland and seemed disconnected from reality. Her sunny view of the direction of the country, particularly the inner cities, are completely out of touch with the polls regarding the nation’s direction.
Donald Trump is in the spin room at the moment, and it seems unlikely he would be there if his campaign felt he had a clear win. This was a debate about missed chances. Trump had a wealth of opportunities to slam Hillary Clinton on numerous fronts, but instead descended down the rabbit holes in defense of himself to bring up lawsuits, finances, Patty Doyle, Sid Blumenthal, Rosie O’Donnell and more. The moment in the middle of the debate when Trump spun his defense of the birther conspiracy was particularly ugly. She offered up a litany of personal and policy attacks – he made the mistake of rising to take the bait.
Lester Holt did a fine job, generally, of letting the candidates hack at each other and interrupt – for those of us who favor a weaker moderator presence, the effect really was a run and shoot argument between the candidates, which is fine by me. One aspect that will certainly receive further coverage, though, is Holt’s fact-checking approach which seemed entirely directed in Trump’s direction. At no time did he deploy the same approach to Clinton’s remarks, which was particularly notable in response to her email answer.
I doubt Donald Trump is hurt at all by tonight’s performance. It was a mix of good and bad, a fairly average performance by his standards. Hillary Clinton offered the same. The scene was messy – she seemed like she had prepped for an episode of Jeopardy, while he seemed like he was in the midst of a Survivor challenge. The difference is that he had an opportunity to land far more blows than she did. He will have another opportunity soon enough. Whether he’s interested in taking it is another question entirely.