If he had a plan to win the debate against Clinton, it remains as secret as his plan to defeat ISIS
If you are Donald Trump, and six weeks before Election Day most voters still view Hillary Clinton as the safer Oval Office choice, you head into the first presidential debate with a simple objective. You must show people that you have the knowledge and temperament for the job.
You know that average voters aren’t the only ones who remain skeptical of your qualifications. So are your peers. Top business executives at the nation’s largest companies backed Mitt Romney in 2012 but are sitting out this year’s campaign or supporting Mrs. Clinton. Well-regarded national security experts, such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are also skeptical. Mr. Gates described you in these pages as “stubbornly uninformed about the world and how to lead our country and government, and temperamentally unsuited to lead our men and women in uniform.” You know that the first debate will draw tens of millions of viewers and provide the best opportunity between now and the election to prove the doubters wrong.
But you also know what’s in store. You know you will be asked about unreleased tax returns, high-profile police shootings and your repugnant birtherism. You know that Mrs. Clinton will come prepared with facts and figures and details and that it would be wise for you to do the same. You know the first female nominee of a major party is likely to bring up, among other things, your past remarks about women. You know she will provoke you but that you shouldn’t take the bait.
If Mr. Trump had a strategy for winning Monday night’s face-off with Mrs. Clinton, it remains as secret as his plan to defeat Islamic State. The Republican nominee looked and sounded frighteningly unprepared. Split-screen shots showed him shifting his weight, rolling his eyes, impatient. Then he would open his mouth and make matters worse with rambling, self-centered responses that often trailed off into incoherence.
The one thing everybody already knows about Donald Trump is that he’s very rich, yet the candidate couldn’t stop reminding us of this fact throughout the evening and no matter the context. Asked about recent racial unrest following police shootings around the country, he began, “When I look at Charlotte, a city that I love, a city where I have investments . . . .”
While discussing gun violence in Chicago, Mr. Trump noted that he owns properties there as well. He even found a way to plug his new hotel, the Trump International in Washington, D.C. And he assured voters that he’s “extremely underleveraged” and has “tremendous income.” The developer said he’s not bragging, just citing his credentials. “It’s about time that this country has somebody running it that has an idea about money,” he said. Apparently, Hillary Clinton is too poor to be president.
Asked why he won’t make his tax returns public, Mr. Trump cited, as he has before, an ongoing audit but said he would release the returns as soon as his opponent “releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted” from a private server. When Mrs. Clinton asserted that Mr. Trump had taken advantage of loopholes to reduce his tax burden, he interjected, “That makes me smart.” Maybe, but saying so aloud in a nationally televised debate is a rather dumb way to appeal to economically distressed voters searching for a candidate who can relate to their predicament.
Mr. Trump did nothing Monday to help his standing with the women and minority voters who are likely to decide the election. When confronted with past sexist remarks, he remained silent or said the women “deserved” it. Democrats deserve criticism for their treatment of black voters, but it’s hard to take it seriously coming from a man who seems to have discovered black America about 15 minutes ago. Someone on Team Trump ought to inform the candidate that the vast majority of black people in the U.S. are neither unemployed nor living in poverty.
Viewers knew what to expect from Mrs. Clinton, and it’s what she delivered. Her goal was to paint her opponent as reckless, ignorant, petty and tone-deaf, and Mr. Trump went out of his way to help her. When she brought up a Justice Department racial discrimination lawsuit filed against Mr. Trump in the 1970s, he explained that he had settled the case without admitting guilt, not that he hadn’t discriminated against minority tenants. When she accused him of not paying workers what he owed them, including an architect who designed a club house at a Trump golf course, Mr. Trump didn’t deny the charge and responded, “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied.”
Trump supporters no doubt felt that way about their candidate after watching the first debate. The surprise is not that Mrs. Clinton prevailed but that she made it look so easy.
Also from Jason Riley:
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).
Tags: appeal to economically distressed voters, birtherism, business executives, discriminated against minority tenants, Donald Trump, first presidential debate, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gates, gun violence in Chicago, Hillary Clinton, Jason Riley, racial discrimination lawsuit, remarks about women, tax returns, Trump International, unprepared, unprepared for debate