The one-trick pony?

It’s un­likely Don­ald Trump will bounce back in the sec­ond de­bate as oth­ers have done

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jules Wit­cover Jules Wit­cover is a syn­di­cated colum­nist and for­mer long­time writer for The Bal­ti­more Sun. His lat­est book is "The Amer­i­can Vice Pres­i­dency: From Ir­rel­e­vance to Power" (Smith­so­nian Books). His email is juleswit­cover@com­cast.net.

Don­ald Trump’s strate­gists, shaken by his in­ef­fec­tive de­fen­sive pos­ture against Hil­lary Clin­ton’s deft ver­bal as­saults in their first de­bate, now face an im­prob­a­ble task: some­how re­mak­ing his very core.

That would re­quire turn­ing a can­di­date whose nat­u­ral po­lit­i­cal weapon is an arse­nal of per­sonal abuse, fac­tual dis­tor­tions and lies into a cred­i­ble po­lit­i­cal fig­ure able to con­vince the na­tion’s elec­torate that he can be trusted run­ning the coun­try.

The first de­bate showed Mr. Trump to be an undis­ci­plined, rigid and gen­er­ally un­in­formed char­la­tan, driven to project and pro­tect his self-im­age as an all-pur­pose prob­lem-solver on a grand scale.

Rather than again let­ting Don­ald be Don­ald — which in the first de­bate of­ten left him look­ing un­cer­tain and snap­pish, com­pared with a cool and col­lected Hil­lary — his strate­gists must per­suade him to cor­rect course.

But per­suad­ing Mr. Trump to ig­nore the bait tossed out by Ms. Clin­ton might be be­yond any po­lit­i­cal ad­viser’s tal­ents, given his supreme self-con­fi­dence and re­sis­tance to ad­vice.

Ms. Clin­ton’s suc­cess in get­ting un­der Mr. Trump’s thin skin was pre­dictable. He has a cel­e­brated short fuse and in­sists that he is al­ways right even in the face of ir­refutable ev­i­dence, as when he con­tends that he was against the 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq be­fore it hap­pened.

Ms. Clin­ton, who voted as a se­na­tor to au­tho­rize the use of force and now calls it “a mis­take,” joined de­bate mod­er­a­tor Lester Holt in get­ting Mr. Trump to re­peat that false­hood last week. She also got him to en­ter the briar patch of his re­fusal to re­lease his in­come tax re­turns, en­abling her to muse that per­haps he had paid none at all — an idea re­in­forced over the week­end with the re­lease of some of his 1995 tax re­turn.

Mr. Trump also al­lowed Ms. Clin­ton to draw him into de­fense of his self-lauded busi­ness prac­tices. He con­tended it was “smart” to find ways to avoid taxes and even to stiff con­struc­tion work­ers on ser­vices ren­dered as a nor­mal part of do­ing busi­ness.

In the process, Mr. Trump never was able to steer the de­bate into ar­eas where Ms. Clin­ton would have had to de­fend her po­lit­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, from her email con­tro­versy to her own personality quirks. Mr. Trump’s lame at­tempt to chal­lenge her “stamina” back­fired, as she stood com­fort­ably with him over the 98-minute non­stop de­bate.

Ms. Clin­ton clev­erly piv­oted from what she sug­gested was a sex­ist dig at women by re­fer­ring to Mr. Trump’s in­sult­ing treat­ment of a Miss Uni­verse win­ner when he ran the con­test. She quoted the win­ner, Ali­cia Machado of Venezuela, who ac­cused Mr. Trump of call­ing her “Miss Piggy” af­ter a sub­se­quent weight gain. In­stead of ig­nor­ing the charge, Mr. Trump de­nied it, and the next day on Fox News called the wo­man, now an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, “the worst we ever had ... the ab­so­lute worst.” He then went on a Twit­ter tirade against her in the mid­dle of the night.

Fur­ther­more, Mr. Trump af­ter the de­bate claimed he had seen sev­eral polls that found him the win­ner, con­trary to a CNN-ORC poll in which Ms. Clin­ton beat him, by 62 per­cent to 27 per­ent. Other polls gen­er­ally con­firmed that find­ing.

Some prom­i­nent Trump sup­port­ers con­ceded that Mr. Trump had erred in not sub­mit­ting to mock de­bate prepa­ra­tion as Ms. Clin­ton and ear­lier pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees had done. But it is un­cer­tain, given Mr. Trump’s self-con­fi­dence and re­sis­tance to being man­aged, that ma­jor changes will be made be­fore the next pres­i­den­tial de­bate in St. Louis on Sun­day night.

That event, again last­ing 90 min­utes or more, will be mod­er­ated by ABC News’ Martha Rad­datz, a highly re­garded for­eign­pol­icy re­porter, and An­der­son Cooper of CNN. The is­sue of Mr. Trump’s prein­va­sion po­si­tion on Iraq may well come up again. He in­sists he dif­fered with Ms. Clin­ton on it and that she should be judged ac­cord­ingly in eval­u­at­ing her for­eign-pol­icy ex­pe­ri­ence.

Prior to the first de­bate, Mr. Trump’s camp promised that a more re­strained Don­ald would emerge as the for­mal Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. He be­gan to use a teleprompter to de­liver scripted speeches, but then in that de­bate he was obliged to go it alone on the stage with Ms. Clin­ton, and it did not go well.

A cliche holds that one never gets a sec­ond chance to make a first im­pres­sion. Four years ago, though, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama didn’t do well in his first en­counter with Mitt Rom­ney; still, he bounced back in the sec­ond with­out any char­ac­ter trans­plant. Can the set-in-tone Don­ald Trump do like­wise next time?

DAVID GOLD­MAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump lis­tens as Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton an­swers a ques­tion dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial de­bate at Hof­s­tra Univer­sity in Hemp­stead, N.Y., last week.

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