Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seemed proud of his lack of conventional preparation for his Monday night debate with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. At one point, he even needled Clinton over her having taken time off the campaign trail to prepare herself. She made him pay by acknowledging she’d prepared for the debate just as she was preparing to be president.
Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style, which served him well in a zany primary campaign when he forced his opponents to play by his rules (or no rules at all), did not work when he shared the stage with Clinton for over 90 minutes at Hofstra University.
From the beginning, he blustered, he stumbled, he interrupted Clinton’s answers and ignored the rules of the debate. He scowled throughout.
Debates are, to be sure, about a touch of show business, but this debate, viewed by more than 80 million people, was Trump’s chance to demonstrate his substance, to show he was familiar with national security issues, with economic issues, with the concerns of average, middle-class Americans.
But when Clinton at one point noted he seemed to root for foreclosures to enable him to make money, Trump grumbled, “That’s business.”
Tax return issue
He also fumbled badly when Clinton calmly speculated that Trump had refused to release his tax returns (Clinton has) because he might not be as rich as he says he is, or because he probably didn’t pay any federal taxes despite allegedly being a billionaire. As it has been for months, Trump’s excuse was that he was following his lawyer’s advice, even though he’s legally free to release his returns while they are under audit.
Trump came back with shots at Clinton about her private email server and the ongoing controversy surrounding it. In a reply that appeared to surprise Trump, Clinton – again, demonstrating calm – acknowledged her mistake.
The one area where Trump has done well in discussions – when he can control his tendency to bluster – is on the issue of trade, and he did make points about the U.S. trade imbalances with China and other foreign countries. He blasted the NAFTA agreement (though the damage he alleges it’s done he exaggerates) but in the course of that he managed to mention the needs of workers in swing states. Intended or not, that represented something rare in Trump’s campaign – subtlety.
Unfortunately for Trump, Clinton undermined his sympathy for working people by noting his bankruptcies had put people out of work, and that he had failed to pay contractors. Trump’s response was to speculate those people hadn’t done good work. But his repeated references to his ownership of property in big cities aren’t likely to have made working people feel a connection with him.
A presidential campaign is not about, or should not be about, “show biz moments.” It ought to be candidates, meeting the people with specific ideas about addressing what the candidates see as the nation’s most pressing problems.
Clinton is doing that, with detailed speeches and online presentations about providing debt-free college, about health care expansion, about calming turbulent race relations, about foreign policy, about curbing terrorism. At this point, Trump continues to blast away, dodging specifics and merely saying whatever policy he comes up with on any given subject is “going to be beautiful.”
In a wild Republican primary debate, that might work. In the Oval Office, it won’t.