A friend — a professional, smart suburban female voter with good judgment who I’ve known for years — texted me during the first presidential debate that she was on three different text chains with all women, each a different background, party. There were ages 35-45. Every single one was disgusted by Trump’s behavior.
And she’s a Republican, by the way.
There is no way to score the debate the way we’ve scored them for decades. We showed up for a baseball game and watched the food fight from “Animal House” break out. It was inelegant, embarrassing, and, as CNN’s Dana Bash said immediately afterward on television: “a sh– show.”
Looking through the lens of what’s driving President Donald Trump’s troubles — his poor relationship with female voters — this debate did nothing to help and, if my friend is right, may have made it worse.
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Trump’s theory was to come out and pummel his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, get under his skin, and then watch him dig deep holes from which he could not climb out. It’s not a theory without merit, as Biden had lost his temper on numerous occasions when challenged by voters and other candidates (remember him screaming at Elizabeth Warren?)
But Trump didn’t let the strategy breathe. His unrelenting interruptions never allowed Biden to dig those holes. Biden couldn’t do much of anything, in fact, as Trump was on him — at least for the first hour — like a hungry wolverine, scratching and clawing at the Democrat’s every syllable.
Beyond that, Trump made the classic incumbent president mistake: focusing too much on your accomplishments over the last four years and not enough on what you’d do in the next four.
Trump needs to offer a choice between his second-term agenda and Biden’s (especially on economic policies), and instead he kept himself and his abrasive style solely at the center of the election. A referendum, in other words, that plays into Biden’s hands.
Sure, there will be Trump supporters who loved the performance. If you hate politicians and the media, you love it when Trump punches them collectively in the mouth. But Trump squandered what initially had the makings of a good debate by interrupting so much and making it so personal, according to a veteran political debate coach I consulted afterward.
Biden wouldn’t answer court packing questions, was dishonest about his health care plan and the Green New Deal (contradicted himself from one sentence to another), but Trump overplayed it by being such a bully on the stage. He crossed the line from being on offense to being offensive. Game over because Biden didn’t fall down dead, my friend said.
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Trump’s performance wasn’t without flecks of smart messaging. He repeatedly brought up Biden’s 47 years in Washington in a legitimate way: Why didn’t you do something about these problems in the last half century? He had some good riffs on public safety and even on defending his coronavirus record, which has weighed him down in the polls as of late. And he did get in some licks on his economic chops versus what he described as slow growth while Biden was in office.
But overall, I was looking for moments that would speak to the people that Trump must recapture to win, chiefly, center-right suburban women and senior citizens, who don’t seem to hate Biden near as much as they hated Hillary Clinton. And I just didn’t find them. Trump spoke to Biden and moderator Chris Wallace more than he spoke to the American people and that’s not going to cut it.
Now it is true that Clinton was judged to have won all three debates over Trump in 2016, and that the media tends to overreact when Trump appears to have done something offensive. Historically, Trump being judged to have lost the first debate is on par with several previous incumbent presidents of both parties, some of whom won reelection (Obama, Bush 43, Reagan) and a couple who didn’t (Bush 41 and Carter).
We mustn’t forget that this electorate is largely ossified, and so the vast majority of viewers won’t budge an inch. Trump’s strongest supporters will love his smash-mouth brand of debating. Biden’s team will feel aggrieved (their most comfortable gear) and donate even more money than they already have. And those looking to learn something last night will feel empty, because there was little to learn that we didn’t already know.
Scott Jennings is a Republican adviser, CNN political contributor, and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. He can be reached at Scott@RunSwitchPR.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. This column originally appeared at the Louisville Courier Journal.