Even I, as much as I dislike him, wanted to see Donald Trump debate Hillary Clinton.
I expected he would be brutal and, if nothing else, hold her to account for the various ways she has disqualified herself from the presidency. If nothing else, that would make Trump winning the primary worth it.
But it didn’t happen. He lost the debate. Worse, he didn’t land any real body blows on her.
The poor performance doesn’t mean Trump’s going to lose the election. President Obama lost the first debate in 2012 and ended up smoking Mitt Romney in the election. Ronald Reagan was so incoherent that he appeared senile in his first debate in 1984, and he ended up winning 49 states.
It also doesn’t mean Clinton was even remotely good on stage Monday night. She wasn’t. I’m not sure I have ever witnessed a politician look more uncomfortably phony. There was the constant, creepy fake smile. There were the planned one-liners, clumsily delivered, that fell flat. There was the slow, methodical delivery. The lying.
It doesn’t mean Clinton was right on issues and Trump was wrong. There were plenty of things about which he was right and she was wrong. Then again, there were plenty of things they both said and both were wrong about, like the idiotic, constitutionally offensive idea of the no-fly list being used to extra-judicially remove a person’s Second Amendment rights.
And it doesn’t mean that Trump didn’t look quite good at times. He actually won the first 20 minutes of the debate, by my estimation. I am a free trader and will never move off that position, but I can still admit that he dominated her on trade, the economy, and parts of the foreign policy conversation.
What it does mean is that Trump did not take advantage of perhaps his biggest opportunity to date.
Prior to this debate, Trump had been steadily gaining ground in the polls, particularly in important battleground states like Pennsylvania, and yes, even Maine. A knockout performance that was both presidential, informed and crisply delivered would have obliterated Clinton, and very well could have moved Trump into the lead.
It could have, in my opinion, put him in a position to win all the rust belt states, some of the Rocky Mountain states, and perhaps give him a chance to get more than 300 electoral votes.
He didn’t do that, and it was all his own doing.
Time after time, Monday night, he was presented with golden opportunities to hammer away at Clinton. Yet he missed nearly every opportunity, sometimes while he did damage to himself.
One of the most glaring examples was when moderator Lester Holt posed a question to Clinton about her private email server after she had hammered him on his failure to release his tax returns. At that moment, Trump likely could have put an exchange that didn’t favor him behind him and attacked Clinton on one of her core weaknesses — trustworthiness.
He should have seen the chance, too, because Clinton looked like an uncomfortable, babbling fool while talking about her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. “I shouldn’t have done it, and I’m sorry,” she awkwardly said.
Trump started strong. He said that wasn’t good enough. She violated one of the most sacred duties of an official in her position, that of protecting this nation’s national security secrets. And she did it because she is a paranoid, controlling political hack more concerned with obfuscating the public’s ability to review what she has done than with doing her duty.
But after a quick moment questioning why so many of her employees were taking the Fifth when asked about the server, he stopped. He didn’t connect it to her shocking dereliction of duty. He didn’t connect it to the pay-to-play activities, selling our nation’s foreign policy to Clinton Foundation donors. He didn’t note the irony that she is lecturing the rest of us about the need for cybersecurity after violating it and lying about it so much.
He voluntarily went back to his taxes, and spent minute after agonizing minute defending himself. In so doing, he gave the ball back to Clinton. He let her spend the last half of the debate talking about him, rather than defending herself.
That happened time after time. If Trump wants to win the second and third debates and the presidency, he can’t let it happen again.