My anti-Trump credentials are, I think, as well-established as anybody’s. With that in mind, it seemed clear to me last night that Trump had his best debate, and that it pointed to ways in which he might have run a stronger campaign, if he had had better advisers and better political skills of his own.
Political observers much more shrewd than I have argued for some time that this election will not be won but lost, and that it will be lost by the person the election becomes “about,” emotionally. Which is to say, if the election is a referendum on the character of Donald Trump and his fitness for the office of the presidency, Trump will lose; if the election is a referendum on the character, trustworthiness, and public record of Hillary Rodham Clinton, then she will lose. That remains true, in my view.
Trump’s attractiveness as a candidate was best illustrated by a throwaway moment when Clinton was attempting to needle him for complaining about being treated unfairly, mocking him for complaining as a television performer that even the Emmys were stacked against him. Trump, mixing his usual bravado with just the tiniest hint of self-deprecation, didn’t argue with her but simply insisted: “I should have got the Emmy.” That’s the Trump that Trump supporters like. I cannot think of any positive reason for that man to be president of the United States of America, but I can understand why some people might think he should.
Clinton, on the other hand, was exposed and vulnerable at critical moments. When she was pressed on having given a speech calling for hemispheric free trade and open borders, she absurdly tried to make the question about Vladimir Putin. When she was similarly pressed on giving special treatment to Clinton Foundation donors as secretary of state, she could not find a word to defend her actions. Trump pounded on the Clinton Foundation, which was a mistake. What he should have said was: “The question is not whether the Clinton Foundation does good things, but about whether Hillary Clinton was a corrupt secretary of state.”
When the focus was most intensely on Clinton last night, she was drowning.
The problem for Trump, of course, is that he is incapable of having a social interaction that is not principally about him. Love him or loathe him, that is an inescapable effect of the outsize persona he has assumed. He has a certain talent for ridicule, but in the end the case Donald Trump makes for himself is not one based on policy or proposals, or even about the unworthiness of Hillary Rodham Clinton, but about the excellence and indeed greatness of Donald J. Trump, real-estate heir, reality-television host, and failed casino operator. He can make a negative case against Clinton; indeed, any normal person casually acquainted with the facts of American political life for the past 25 years could do so. It is much more difficult (impossible, in my view) to make a positive case for Donald Trump.
I do not expect Trump to win the election, or that the election will be particularly close. But there are lessons for Republicans and conservatives to take away from last night’s debate, if they have eyes to see.