Donald Trump’s missed opportunities in the first debate
As he prepared for the crucial first presidential debate, Donald Trump knew moderator Lester Holt would bring up the birther issue. He knew Holt would raise Trump’s tax returns. And his old position on the Iraq war. None are among the voters’ top concerns, but it was eminently predictable that they would be part of the debate — not least because if Holt had not brought them up, Hillary Clinton would have.
But Trump might not have predicted that Holt would leave some equally, if not more, important topics untouched. There was Obamacare, currently veering towards crisis. Immigration, including a proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Clinton Foundation. Benghazi. Certainly a moderator can’t cover everything, but those were some pretty big omissions.
Holt deserves blame for not bringing them up. But on the other hand, that is where a candidate’s preparation comes in. If the moderator doesn’t raise a key issue, the candidate does. And Trump didn’t.
“The wall is a very important issue, and I am surprised that it wasn’t brought up, frankly,” one of Trump’s key supporters and advisers, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), said after the debate.” Also, they didn’t bring up the Clinton Foundation. I mean, goodness gracious. So I thought there were a number of issues that could have been brought up that would have been troubling for Secretary Clinton that were not brought up.”
Trump began the debate well. He approached Clinton aggressively and made his case on the issue of lost American jobs. Clinton countered with a tired-sounding critique of what she called” Trumped-up trickle-down” economics, and an equally tired spiel on policies like heavily-subsidized clean energy as a partial fix foran ailing economy.
Things were moving in Trump’s direction. “Independents are closer to Trump than to Hillary,” tweeted GOP strategist Frank Luntz, who was holding a focus group watching the debate in Philadelphia. “Trump is doing better with undecideds than even with Trump-leaners. He is actually winning.”
But not for long. Early on, Clinton included her first personal jab at Trump, slipped into an answer on the economy. “Donald was very fortunate in his life, and that’s all to his benefit,” Clinton said. “He started his business with $14 million borrowed from his father ... “
Now, Trump’s team knew going in that Clinton would try to get under his skin. And the easiest way to get under Trump’s skin is to cast some sort of aspersion on his business, his brand, or his career. The question was whether Trump would have the discipline to ignore or brush off such attacks and stay focused on his message. He didn’t. Trump took the bait, saying his father in fact gave him “a very small loan” in 1975. And after that Trump took virtually every other morsel of bait the Clinton, or Holt, offered him the rest of the night.
Trump’s problem was that he didn’t have a lot of really good moments like that because he spent so much time talking about taxes, birtherism and Iraq. The Clinton team wanted to distract him, to keep him on topics that hurt him — and away from topics that hurt her. They succeeded. “We were very happy with the debate,” campaign manager Robby Mook said shortly afterward. “I think he was totally unprepared.”
Meanwhile, those topics that could have done Trump a lot of goodif handled well — Obamacare, immigration and the wall, the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi — were left untouched. Yes, blame Lester Holt for not bringing them up. But blame Donald Trump more for not taking matters into his own hands.