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Not A Master Debater

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Our first presidential debate is in the books, and it was a record-breaker, sort of.

Some 84 million Americans tuned in to see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump go at each other. That number seems high until you remember the old record was the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that drew 80 million at a time when there were 100 million fewer Americans. Still, in the age of 500 channels, 84 million is pretty good. But although the numbers for Monday’s debate were impressive, the debate itself was not.


What was supposed to be the first one-on-one debate of the electoral season turned into a tag-team wrestling match with Clinton and “moderator” Lester Holt taking turns going after Trump for any and everything. It sure seemed like Holt learned the Matt Lauer lesson after he was attacked for “being too hard on Hillary” and “too easy on Trump” at the “Commander-In-Chief Forum” earlier this month. Maybe now that his NBC News colleague has re-hoisted the liberal flag, the Manhattan cocktail party set will let Lauer get out of his punishment box and rejoin the elitist clique.

The first 20 minutes to half hour was very strong for Trump, stronger than he’d been in any of the primary debates. After that, Clinton took control and Trump seriously faltered.

As has been the case since the moment he rode that escalator down to the lobby of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, Donald Trump’s strongest opponent is himself. Being on a debate stage with nine other people makes it easy to jab and weave because focus is all over the stage. It’s a different game when it’s one-on-one.

Never before had a punch been so telegraphed and still walked into like the Clinton campaign’s desire to get under Trump’s skin. But she burrowed right under, and he spent the second half of the debate responding to Hillary’s allegations rather than making the case for himself and his agenda.

A seasoned debater, or ever a practiced and studied one, could have skillfully swatted away the personal jabs on unimportant issues. But Trump either couldn’t or wouldn’t.


The story leading up to the debate was that Camp Clinton was doing around-the-clock prep, but Trump was just gonna be Trump. And if Trump had been the good side of Trump, he would’ve won in a walk.

He started off that way, but he lost it and became the narcissist Trump.

In the grand scheme of things, who gives a damn that Donald Trump got a loan for any amount from his father? Only liberals who will never, ever consider voting for him. Who cares about him not releasing his taxes? Journalists and those liberals who will never, ever vote for him (but I repeat myself). More than 60 percent polled may think he should release them, just like a lot people think Hillary should release her full health records, but it won’t move any votes. And if something won’t move any votes, no candidate should waste time talking about it.

The birther issues was Trump’s biggest self-inflicted wound of the night.

Donald Trump has been doing what Republicans should have been doing for 40 years – going into the black community, pointing out the obvious truths about the failures of Democrats and their policies, making the case for his own and actually asking for their votes. Rand Paul is, for the most part, the only known Republican to do this before now. It’s smart strategy, good politics, true and the right thing to do.

Although the birther issues, absurd from the start, may have been Trump’s official entry into national politics, like a stubborn child, he swam in that pool for far too long. I don’t think it’s racist – the same type of tactic was used against Barry Goldwater in 1964, McCain in 2008, and Cruz in 2016 (by Trump) – but he’s not trying to appeal to me.


If Trump had just moved on, not revisited it at all in this campaign, his outreach would be much more effective. The media was always going to bring it up because Democrats want it brought up. But it should’ve been brushed aside. A multiple-minute tortured back and forth with Holt over claims of having done President Obama a “favor” was pointless, even damaging.

And that was Donald Trump’s problem at the debate – a lack of prioritization. There’s a difference between counterpunching and being defensive, and he was defensive Monday night. Any of those weak questions Lester Holt asked easily could have been spun to address issues Trump cares about – immigration, national security, jobs, etc. Instead he took the bait. He swallowed every hook and stepped on every landmine Clinton and Holt laid out for him thinking he could handle them.

He didn’t handle them well.

His debate mistakes weren’t fatal – he didn’t say he’d list three things and remember only two of them– but they are indicative of a candidate who wasn’t as prepared for a debate as he should have been.

Trump has two more bites at the apple, and plenty of candidates have overcome poor debate performances. But he’s going to have to win at least one of them decisively. That means he’s going to have to practice. As Grover Norquist told me this week, it’s one thing to be good at Jeopardy on your couch; it’s another to be good at the audition. Donald Trump has to do well in his next audition.


Luckily for him, there were no deathblows landed Monday night; Hillary wasn’t great either and is generally an awful communicator and justifiably untrusted. Nothing from this debate will be remembered by tomorrow, if it hasn’t been forgotten already. But she won, barely, on points, and even a win on points is a win.

There’s no reason to think a well-prepared Donald Trump couldn’t produce a knockout blow. But he’s going to have to do something outside his comfort zone, something un-Trumplike, and prepare.

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