Corey Uhden, 2016 Elections Contributor
Hillary is prepared. Trump isn’t. It shows.
Tonight was round 1 of the 2016 presidential debate series. To use a sports analogy, everything before this was the regular season and now we’re in the playoffs. Unfortunately for us, and very fortunately for Donald Trump, this isn’t a single-elimination playoff; it’s a series. Round 1 goes down as a timely victory for Hillary Clinton.
But only because her opponent was Donald Trump.
Lester Holt proved the perfect moderator for a debate between two candidates that simply couldn’t wait to get right after eachother. It started on trade, she took it to taxes, and it circled around to something he calls “business”. She didn’t say it outright, but at this point Hillary landed a lasting blow - planting the impression in the voters’ minds that Donald Trump has a history of stiffing the little guy. She cited cases in which his company underpaid contractors, then she brought up his four bankruptcies, and she opened up her latest salvo against his refusal to release detailed tax returns - that perhaps he gets away with paying no income taxes. Time and time again, Hillary seems to signal, Donald Trump does what is best for his own bottom line and screws over everyone else.
The conversation then shifted to racial issues. Honestly, both candidates were out to lunch on the topic. Hillary used it to talk about “a gun epidemic” and Trump took the chance to portray inner cities as “hell” where he seemed to wallow in the notion that everyone’s getting shot. Trump took another blow here, somehow falling for an issue even he admitted he would rather ignore. Lester Holt asked the candidates about President Obama’s birthplace. Incredibly, Trump said he decided to drop the matter so he could focus on other issues, but then defended his effort and basked in some exaggerated glory, taking credit for getting President Obama to eventually release his long-form birth certificate. Hillary pounced, claiming Trump perpetuated his claim because it was “racist” and that it worked for him. Asked if he had a response to that, Trump answered, “absolutely not.”
On matters of national security, Hillary somehow claimed the Iran nuclear “deal” is a roaring success and Trump endorsed nuclear proliferation writ large. He denounced her plan to defeat ISIS for existing in the first place - “they can read it too” - and correctly blamed the feckless political decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq without a long-term Status of Forces Agreement for enabling ISIS to take control of the country. What Trump offered beyond that was basically rambling, ranting about “taking the oil” and tough talk about a plan he refuses to reveal.
All of this could be handled better. In fact, it already has been. The Trump campaign says he didn’t do much debate preparation in advance of tonight. The truth is he had plenty of it during his primary fight. Senator Marco Rubio could have handled Clinton’s record and her evasions with ease. Anyone could. But to Trump, they weren’t evasions, they were invitations. She baited him, and the shark couldn’t resist taking a huge chunk out of every piece of chum tossed in the water.
No other Republican nominee would have been asked about the birther conspiracy, but Trump not only took the question, he dwelled on a matter he openly admitted was distracting him from getting to his message. No other Republican would still question the validity of NATO in the War on Terror, especially after Clinton had explained that the only time NATO has even been asked to defend a member state was 9/11/2001, but Trump insisted it was still fair game. Called out on his past support for the Iraq War, Trump repeatedly tried to get reporters to “call Sean Hannity!”
This is absolutely a pattern. Time after time, Trump goes out and addresses a lingering controversy and his campaign aides cite it every time they’re asked. But then you put him back in the spotlight, and he just can’t can’t help himself; he always take the bait.
He claimed tonight that this is a “winning” temperament, and that Hillary “lacks the stamina” to be president. Stamina is trending now, a stand-in for what most would describe as an effective response to a campaign that was just called out, in real time, as racist, misogynist, downright mean, representing the worst of America at the worst possible time. Because this is what Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters prepared for. This is what their multi-million-dollar campaign intends to drive home until November 8th. Trump was himself, exactly what Hillary wanted and needed.
This campaign season has been driven entirely by voters’ perceptions of the candidates, mostly negative. Before tonight, Trump had momentum, but expect some fluctuations in the near future. It has been clear since Trump assumed the title of presumptive nominee that this was never going to hinge on policy, but on matters of personality and fitness for office. Round 1 proved Hillary recognizes this dynamic and she has all the former, but is more than prepared for the latter. In fact, I don’t think anyone has seen Hillary enjoy herself more.
It didn’t have to be this way. Certain trends started to appear among conservatives on Twitter watching Donald Trump implode. “I miss ___”, “____ would have handled this better”, “we want _______”, even “bring back ______”. Among early primary supporters of other Republican candidates, among voters that never had a chance to support a Republican they could be proud of, the sentiment is the same. Donald Trump missed opportunities tonight. The GOP missed opportunities by having him up there to represent the party. Conservatives missed opportunities to consolidate support for a more electable candidate and to prevent Trump from representing Republicans in the general election. 2016 continues to be summed up in just two words: missed opportunities.
There are two more debates, but the campaigns haven’t actually agreed to show up for them yet. I predict: more of the same. Trump is going to get a lot of advice, but he surely did for tonight too and it didn’t help. Hillary just has to hammer the points that were made for her tonight all the way home.
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