Photo Credit: YouTube screenshot

{Originally posted to the Commentary Magazine website}

Donald Trump came into the first presidential debate poised to build on the momentum he built during the last month as Hillary Clinton’s awful campaign erased the lead she had over the summer. But by the time the candidates left the stage at Hofstra University, a new narrative about may have been created. There will be two more debates and the outcomes of those encounters may be different. But when handed his best chance before the largest possible audience to seize control of the race, Trump blew it. Clinton emerged from the evening the clear winner having put him on the defensive without the combative billionaire being able to nail her on the very issues about her credibility that had made this a toss-up election.

Advertisement

Trump started the evening strong hitting Clinton hard on her blatant flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, interrupting her and seemed in control. But as we got further into the debate, we learned two things about these two candidates when placed alongside each other.

One was that the new Kellyanne Conway-tutored muzzled Donald Trump can still be baited into going badly off message. The other is that while Clinton still isn’t very likable or exciting, she does have (Trump’s insult notwithstanding) the stamina to spout her policy knowledge for 90 minutes and to hit him hard without absorbing many blows in return.

The basic fact about the debate that will always haunt Trump fans if he winds up losing is that he failed to take advantage of Clinton’s credibility problem and instead spent much of it flailing as he sought to explain his record spreading the birther myth, why he won’t release his tax returns, whether he stiffed small vendors who did business with his companies or if he has been guilty of discrimination or sexism. Almost no time was spent on Clinton’s email scandal and the words “Clinton Foundation” and “Benghazi” never passed his lips. No matter how they’re spinning his performance after the fact, if anyone in the Trump campaign had thought this would happen they would have assumed the debate was a devastating disappointment. Which is exactly what it was for him.

That the debate was mostly fought on Clinton’s ground was Trump’s fault, not debate moderator Lester Holt who admittedly was tougher on the GOP candidate. Trump missed chance after chance to hit her and instead went on long and confusing riffs vainly seeking to explain his weak points that were both ineffective and served to put the focus on his own lack of preparation.

What’s worse is that he may draw the wrong conclusions from his debate. If he comes out next time being even more brutal and over-aggressive than he was this time rather than being ready to give the voters more substance he may set himself up for another and different kind of defeat.

Not every moment was bad for Trump. He didn’t give substantive answers on any policy questions, but he did speak coherently about trade and the economy. He was also right and Clinton dead wrong about the Iran nuclear deal. But while Trump has prided himself on being a strong counter-puncher in debates this time the familiar routine fell flat. Instead it was Clinton who landed the blows and evaded most of those that were sent in her direction. It was Trump who came off looking like he was not playing fair since he continually sought to interrupt Clinton. That might have caused her to lose her cool but instead it was Trump who seemed annoyed by her ripostes.

Even as we score this debate a big victory for Clinton and a terrible missed opportunity for Trump, the fact remains that her vulnerabilities have not been erased and she no longer can count on the big lead that was hers in August. There will be two other chances for Trump to do better and for Clinton to seem less in charge. The precedents of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2012, when both incumbents lost their first debates to challengers will be cited to encourage Trump supporters. But this is a very different kind of election. He is the challenger who needed to demonstrate mastery and he failed miserably on that count.

The question entering the night was whether a faltering Clinton would continue to lose ground in a contest that is hers to lose because of the Democrats’ advantages in the Electoral College and the country’s changing demographics. She didn’t and Trump will almost certainly never again have as good a chance to seize control of the race as he did Monday night. His momentum may be gone and if he loses in November, this debate may have been the moment when his long shot chance to pull an upset slipped away from him.

Advertisement