Handicapping debate performances this year has been a fool's errand, but here goes ...
If you went into Monday night's first presidential debate supporting Donald Trump in spite of everything he's done to turn people off, I don't see why you'd stop supporting him now.
If you went into it supporting Hillary Clinton in spite of everything she's done to turn people off, I don't see why you'd stop supporting her now.
And if you went into it unsure of whom to support in spite of everything we've seen and heard from the two of them, I don't see why you'd make up your mind now.
But I've been wrong before.
Oddly enough, the first segment of the debate went off as if it were a normal election year: The Republican talked about cutting taxes; the Democrat talked about raising taxes without saying "raise taxes." The Republican said the Democrat didn't know how jobs are created; the Democrat talked about "fairness." For the first 30 minutes or so, Clinton treated Trump more or less like an equal rather than the ringleader of the "deplorables." It didn't work so well for her: Trump countered her every argument by painting her as a typical career politician whose rhetoric isn't backed up by her record. Trump went after her on trade -- wrongly, in my view, but his attacks on this topic have worked well for him so far in this campaign, and may well have been to his benefit Monday night.
The first sign of trouble for Trump came when moderator Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News asked about his tax returns. He arrived at something of a good answer when he wound up tying his lack of transparency to hers: "I will release my tax returns -- against my lawyer's wishes -- when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release." But when Clinton offered her own suggestions for why he has refused to release the information, including a theory that it's because he hasn't paid any federal taxes, his rebuttal was, "That makes me smart."
That's a tough line to take when you're running as a populist who says the system is rigged against the little guy. Billionaire businessman pays less in taxes than you -- not in percentage of income, the left's usual way of making this argument, but in absolute dollars -- and then says it's because he's "smart"? Implying you ... aren't? Does that fly with the people Trump is trying to win over? I'm not sure it does.
But the real mistake for him on the tax-returns issue is that he allowed it to distract him from an opportunity to hit Clinton for her own problems. When Holt gave Clinton a chance to respond to Trump's offer of tax info-for-emails, she gave a pretty weak answer about having made "a mistake." While Trump immediately pounced on it -- saying it was done purposely, and pointing to deals her aides and staff struck to protect themselves from prosecution -- he just as suddenly turned away from an issue that has dogged her and back to the tax-returns issue. An enormous sigh of relief must have exited Clinton HQ as he got into whether he was "underleveraged" at $650 million of debt on certain buildings he owned, or indeed whether $650 million was the right number. The single biggest liability for Clinton, and Trump turned the discussion back to his own weakness.
Later, in a discussion about race, Trump managed for the most part not to say anything overly insulting (though he did repeat his previous claim that in "our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it's so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot."). He went from there to disagreeing with his own party about denying guns to people on the no-fly or terror-watch lists -- a deeply flawed basis for denying a constitutional right, given not only the lack of due process but the numerous people mistakenly flagged by those lists. But the real problem came when he was asked about his past claims that President Obama wasn't born in the United States.
Now, if anyone is going to claim Holt was biased in his questioning, they're likely to point to this episode. Trump recently declared himself satisfied that Obama is indeed an American, and it seems unlikely that many voters want to hear more about the topic. That said, Trump did himself no favors with his answer, in which he reiterated his claim that Clinton loyalists were responsible for starting the controversy. Discretion being the better part of valor, he'd probably have been better off pointing back to his recent statement that it was no longer an issue in his view and trying to pivot to another issue. As it was, what he said didn't seem to go over well:
Being dragged down because of an old -- and foolish -- controversy is not what Trump needed.
All that said, I still will be mildly surprised if that first debate moves the opinion polls very much. Trump didn't say anything outlandish that would cause undecided people to move decisively against him. Heck, he was arguably less outlandish than usual. By the standard I outlined before the debate -- he can afford to come off as ill-prepared, flustered and incoherent at times, just not crazy -- he probably did just well enough.
I expect people to give him at least one more shot in the second debate. And because that one will be smack-dab in the middle of the Columbus Day weekend (Sunday, Oct. 9), I wouldn't be surprised if, barring other surprises, the polls remain tight through the third debate (Wednesday, Oct. 19).
But as I've mentioned: I've been wrong before.
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