At the end of President Obama’s final State of the Union address, Donald Trump took to Twitter to offer what he viewed as a devastating insult: “Really boring, slow, lethargic — very hard to watch!”
The problem for Trump is that those words could be used to describe his debate performance last night. Yes, there were Trumpian moments where he effectively channeled voter frustration about trade and the loss of manufacturing jobs. But in general it was a low-energy performance, with the Donald at times sniffling so much that it seemed he was coming down with a cold.
I watched the debate with a group of people largely indifferent to who should win in November. Most of them hadn’t watched a single one of the eleven GOP debates or, for that matter, any of Hillary’s debates with Bernie Sanders. All felt that Hillary performed well, especially given that moderator Lester Holt never brought up pesky issues such as Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation. But when it came to Trump, their interest in him lagged in the second half at about the same time his energy level dimmed.
By the end of the debate, most people thought Trump had become boring and repetitive. “When he told us exactly how much he made last year, it sounded like the salesman from Keokuk who can’t stop talking about many pairs of shoes he sold,” one debate watcher told me.
Because Trump left his standard insult routine at home, he was actually less interesting than usual to casual viewers. The drunk in a bar is often amusing when he offers insulting nicknames or brags about his prowess. But Trump without insults and new material quickly becomes a showman without, well, much of a show.
There is also the insecurity, which was on full display last night. After being criticized for stiffing vendors, he plaintively noted:
What she doesn’t say is that there are tens of thousands of people that are unbelievably happy and that love me. I’ll give you an example. We’re just opening up on Pennsylvania Avenue right next to the White House, so if I don’t get there one way, I’m going to get to Pennsylvania Avenue another.
It almost sounded as if Trump would be satisfied with almost making it to the White House so long as he has a perch in the nation’s capital from which he can pontificate about what might have been had he been elected. This is not the attitude that inspires more people to vote him into our nation’s highest office.
Even financial writer Liz Peek, a strong Trump supporter, was less than enthusiastic at FoxNews.com, writing:
Maybe Donald Trump should have done more prep. On so many fronts he should have been able to wipe that smug grin off Hillary’s face; he did not rise to the challenge. . . . [Hillary] did manage to cast her adversary as unprepared and unfocused.
By failing to engage in the traditional mock debates that can hone a candidate’s skills, Trump allowed Hillary Clinton to dominate the debate. All she had to do was unspool her canned answers and watch Trump flounder in self-referential asides and defensive riffs on his handling of the gender and the “birther” issues.
The good news for Donald Trump is that there are two more debates, and these will almost certainly involve more discussion of Hillary’s scandals and fitness for office than the first one did.
#related#Past presidential campaigns have often seen candidates recover from poor performances in the first debate. Ronald Reagan’s halting performance in the first debate in 1984 led to him delivering a devastating line in the second debate about taking advantage of Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.” George W. Bush blew his first debate with John Kerry in 2004, only to recover and win reelection. Barack Obama was rated the loser by two out of three CNN viewers in his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012 and then staged a famous comeback.
But Donald Trump should realize the common denominator in all those success stories: Reagan, Bush, and Obama realized they had all “choked” (to use a favorite phrase of Trump’s) and prepared like hell for the next round.