The first presidential debate of the 2016 general election was a rough pill to swallow for liberty lovers. It took me a full 48 hours to digest the spectacle of ignorance on display Monday night. Fortunately, I finally understand why more than a quarter of Republicans and Republican leaning Independents still oppose Trump as their standard-bearer. Against Hillary Clinton, Trump found himself ill-equipped to continue a primary campaign message in a general election setting.
Trump won the Republican nomination because among a congested field of candidates, he best communicated the malaise and misery felt by GOP voters. Of course, a ‘huge’ amount of those same voters despised the way in which he communicated that message, but it was a message that resonated better than any other.
The thing about ‘Make America Great Again’ is that it’s a negative statement. The implication that America isn’t great now, is exactly what salivating primary voters lapped up with a spoon. But the general election isn’t just about Republican voters anymore. Trump needs to pivot, not to the middle, but toward the future. Trump lost the debate because he failed in two substantive ways, for one very big reason.
First, Trump failed to communicate the lack of American greatness to more than just those who already agree, namely the same voters who put him on that stage in the first place. Talking about how bad America is off, ad nauseam, will only get you so far. Additionally, that message needed to be refined with genuine facts and figures rather than the rabidly repetitive “We’re losing!” Naturally, you don’t want to swamp your audience in a pool of Trump-wonk. For conservatives though, nothing would have made their night better than to see Trump tell Hillary, straight to her face, how horrible the Democrat Party has treated their country. Instead, vague statements about how bad China and Mexico is.
I tell you what, if Trump had simply tied the Democrats and Hillary specifically to all the negativity he was spewing about China and Mexico, regardless of how factual it would have been, she would have been on the defensive all night rather than the other way around!
Second, Trump failed to project a positive vision of where he would lead America. For all his faults, President Obama definitely got the messaging right with his campaign slogan of ‘Hope and Change’. Trump has done a lot of talk about the need for change, but when it comes to hope, the ‘Great’ part of his campaign message, most of the country was at a loss on Monday night of whether there was any ‘great’ to be had. Hillary’s relatively simplistic and naive vision was at least witnessed in the debate. Trump just kept reaching back to the tried and true primary campaign message. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought Trump was still debating a Republican.
Regardless of whether Trump could have successfully addressed the first two issues, his chances of winning any future debates require a recognition of a crucial fact: the Trump of Monday night had more in common with Hillary than not.
- Clinton attacked Trump on the ‘birther’ issue, and rather than remind her of 2008 when she was the first to bring it up, he agreed that he forced a release of Obama’s records.
- Accused of not releasing his tax returns for a number of reasons, Trump got caught up in his own defense to the exclusion of highlighting Clinton’s scandalous history; exactly the way Hillary apologists continue to respond when questioned.
- Hillary wants to raise corporate taxes here at home, and Trump wants to raise import taxes on companies overseas. Since when did the Republican Party support tax hikes and protectionism bordering on trade wars?
- Hillary accused Trump of rooting for the 2008 housing crisis. Trump, rather than smacking the Democrat Party with the real blame, claimed it as just “good business”. Apparently the Democrats who passed the laws that led to the crisis in the first place also thought it was good business.
- Can you imagine how devastating for Trump it would have been if Hillary had followed up Trump’s unbalanced MacArthur reference by linking the bogus ‘Trump will have nuclear weapons!’ attack, and the very real desire MacArthur had to bomb China?
I’m not saying Trump is a Democrat. That would be crazy. After Monday night’s performance though, its awful depressing to think that the only half-way decent explanation of such a horrible showing by Trump is that he might be…