Trump’s de­bate was a disas­ter… if vot­ers no­tice

Business Mirror - - OPINION - By Jonathan Bern­stein |

DON­ALD TRUMP is bet­ter at TV than any­one else who has ever ap­peared in pres­i­den­tial de­bates. Much bet­ter.

He also has no ca­pac­ity at all to speak co­her­ently on pol­icy. He’s lazy: He’s de­vel­oped about five min­utes, maybe 10, of talk­ing points, and he sticks with them. And as one crazy bil­lion­aire on a sit­com said when he ran for pres­i­dent, Trump doesn’t just have skele­tons in his closet. He has “skele­tons run­ning around eat­ing left­overs from the fridge.”

Of course, as my Bloomberg View col­league Megan McAr­dle pointed out dur­ing tonight’s de­bate, plenty of peo­ple have writ­ten about Trump’s lack of pol­icy knowl­edge, but it hasn’t been dra­ma­tized in front of a large au­di­ence, yet. Tonight, Marco Ru­bio and Ted Cruz turned their at­tacks on him, and fully ex­posed him as basi- cally a fraud and a buf­foon. Whether the me­dia will say that—in the news pages, not just the opin­ion pages—is an open ques­tion. It’s also un­clear whether Repub­li­can vot­ers will care.

The big­gest mo­ment came on health care, when Trump was re­peat­edly urged by CNN’s Dana Bash and by Marco Ru­bio to go be­yond “get rid of the lines,” which is all Trump has re­hearsed on the sub­ject. He couldn’t. Ru­bio, quick on the up­take af­ter his in­fa­mous glitch in the pre-New Hamp­shire de­bate, pointed out that Trump was now re­peat­ing him­self; in fact, he con­tin­ued, “I just watched you re­peat your­self five times five sec­onds ago,” and pro­ceeded to mock Trump’s slo­gans.

It was great the­ater, and it was also dead-on ac­cu­rate. That’s what Trump has: A hand­ful of slo­gans to fill in on each sub­ject, which he re­peats as much as nec­es­sary. That, and, of course, talk­ing about how great he is. He did the same thing on Is­rael later in the de­bate. He does the same thing on im­mi­gra­tion: He has a great line (for those who en­joy that sort of thing) about build­ing a wall and mak­ing Mex­ico pay for it, but he can’t re­ally speak co­her­ently be­yond that.

Yes, all of that has been true from the start. Maybe Repub­li­can vot­ers don’t care; af­ter all, they’ve been trained by their party to op­pose the very idea of com­plex govern­ment pol­icy, in­clud­ing con­ser­va­tive poli­cies. But at least tonight it was more ob­vi­ous than usual that Trump is wildly un­pre­pared for the of­fice he is seek­ing.

Cruz and es­pe­cially Ru­bio came pre­pared to hit Trump hard on per­sonal is­sues, as well, in­clud­ing a civil law­suit he’s cur­rently been slapped with over “Trump Univer­sity” and over hir­ing for­eign work­ers for a Florida pro­ject. While th­ese had been re­ported on be­fore, they were new to the Repub­li­can de­bate stage. As was pres­sure on Trump to re­lease his tax re­turns, an is­sue raised ear­lier to­day by Mitt Rom­ney, of all peo­ple.

Trump’s re­sponse was his usual blus­ter, de­nial and at­tack. One of his spe­cial­ties when con­fronted with some­thing he’s said, on pol­icy or any­thing else, is just to flat- out deny it. But if it gen­er­ates high­pro­file fol­low-up sto­ries, none of that plays well.

The pat­tern is clear and pre­dictable: When faced with a poor per­for­mance, a tough story, or good news from an­other can­di­date, Trump says some­thing crazy to pull the at­ten­tion back to him­self and on his own terms. He’s likely to do it within the next 24-hour news cy­cle, maybe within the next 24 min­utes.

To my eyes, Trump’s per­for­mance was a disas­ter, start to fin­ish. But my eyes aren’t im­por­tant. What will mat­ter is how a third of the Repub­li­can elec­torate re­acts to it—the third who are not yet sold on Trump, but not yet re­pulsed by him ei­ther.

BLOOMBERG

REPUB­LI­CANS Ted Cruz and Don­ald Trump.

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