Don­ald Trump’s missed op­por­tu­ni­ties in the first de­bate

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - By­ron York By­ron York is chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner.

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.

By­ron York Columnist

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