Here’s the bottom line on the first presidential debate of 2016: Maybe Donald Trump should have done more prep. On so many fronts he should have been able to wipe that smug grin off Hillary’s face; he did not rise to the challenge. Both candidates had singular ambitions in this confrontation; neither achieved what they might have hoped, but Hillary, aided and abetted by Lester Holt, came out ahead.
Hillary Clinton’s only task in this first presidential debate was to excite people about her candidacy, and reduce her “enthusiasm gap.” That she did not do, but she did manage to cast her adversary as unprepared and unfocused.
Donald Trump’s one ambition in this debate was to convince American voters that he was presidential material, and not the monster that Hillary Clinton and the media have made him out to be. He came close.
Arguably, Trump had the easier assignment. However, he was up against not only his rival, but also against moderator Lester Holt. Holt offered Hillary one topic after another with which she could attack Trump – including several that have been central to her campaign — and she took full advantage of the opportunity.
It was disappointing to Trump fans to see Mrs. Clinton put him on the defensive so adroitly. Instead of counter-attacking, he spent much of the debate defending his treatment of women, when he should have called her out for savaging the women who have charged Bill with sexual assault.
Similarly, Holt put him on the defensive about not releasing his tax returns. Trump parried by saying he would release them when Hillary publishes the 30,000 emails that she deleted. — He should have added that he was still waiting for the transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs.
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Trump was forced to deny that he had been for the war in Iraq; he should have reminded viewers that she was the one, armed with classified materials, who actually voted to allow the attack on Saddam Hussein to take place.
Clinton disparaged his treatment of some workers in the past; he should have mentioned that Hillary has yet to create a single private sector job.
She touted her plan for the U.S. to become the global clean energy superpower; he should have noted that at the same time she has vowed to put our coal miners out of business.
Trump did offer up a couple of good lines. When talking about the country’s financial situation, Trump reasonably pointed out that with $20 trillion in debt, the U.S. is not in a position to fund grandiose infrastructure schemes. More to the point, he said, “It’s about time this country had somebody running it that knows something about money.” Exactly.
He also managed to point out that Hillary has had decades of experience, but has not accomplished much. He might have said more succinctly: if you have all the answers, why haven’t you put any of them to work? If your policies, presumably identical to those of Barack Obama, can heal our racial divide, why does polling show that race relations in this country are at a decades-long low? If you are correct that “implicit bias” is not just a problem for police but for everyone, how can you explain why the country has twice elected an African-American president?
Trump fans will give moderator Lester Holt a thumbs-down, and rightly so. Holt failed to press Hillary on her numerous lies about her email server, on charges of pay-to-play relating to contributions to the Clinton Foundation while she was Secretary of State, about her dishonest explanation of the Benghazi murders, or any of the other multiple scandals that define the former first lady.
At the same time, Holt trotted out questions that fitted neatly into Hillary’s relentless attacks on Trump. Under the heading of Securing America, Holt zeroed in on cyberwarfare, which allowed Hillary to revisit her absurd suggestion that Russia’s Vladimir Putin is secretly trying to destabilize our election, so keen is he to elect his “buddy” Trump. He might, for instance, have asked about how we can prevent terrorists from entering our country.
Holt’s closing question was “Will you support the outcome of the election” which was meant to backstop ridiculous hints from Hillary’s camp that Trump might not accept defeat, but rather charge election fraud.
Holt also pursued the “birther” disagreement, which plays into Hillary’s effort to squash Trump’s outreach to the African-American community.
Holt’s future is in mainstream media; he saw what happened to Matt Lauer when he pressed Hillary earlier this year at a commander in chief forum, and knew better than to go down that path.
Trump needs to work harder to prepare for the next debate. The race is close; it’s likely Monday night’s performance will dampen his momentum.
In the next head-to-head, which will take place on October 9, the Republican nominee will need to sharpen his attack lines.
When challenged on his truthfulness, he needs to point out that in a recent CNN poll, 50 percent of Americans said they saw him as more truthful and honest, while only 35 percent thought that about Hillary Clinton.
He should also hit hard at Clinton’s economic proposals, which include substantial increases in corporate tax rates – a suggestion anathema to most economists.
In short, Trump has plenty of material; it’s easy to show why Hillary Clinton is not fit to be president. We’re counting on him to do so.