He behaved like Donald Trump.
The Clinton campaign’s greatest fear throughout the general election has been that some other Trump would emerge ― a more measured, reasonable and mature man, one who might look like he was ready for the Oval Office. That man doesn’t exist, so he didn’t show up.
Trump came out with a clear game plan targeted at Ohio and Pennsylvania voters frustrated with the loss of manufacturing, hitting Clinton on trade over and over.
But he fairly quickly reverted to the alpha male role that had worked so well in Republican debates, becoming something of a Rick Lazio in split screen, hectoring, interrupting, sniffling loudly and rolling his eyes.
Clinton, after spending the campaign cleaving Trump away from the Republican Party, arguing that there was something uniquely different about him, instead treated Trump Monday night as if Mitt Romney had shown up.
He has advocated, she said somewhat awkwardly, of “trumped-up trickle down economics,” and is little more than a fortunate son. “He started his business with $14 million borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be and that everything will work out from there. I don’t buy that,” Clinton said.
The $14 million dollar figure comes from a Wall Street Journal article published this week ― demonstrating the value of running an actual campaign with an opposition research arm.
Clinton came in with a clear case of nerves, aware that upwards of 100 million people may be watching, and the weight of the free world on her shoulders, but smoothed her performance out quickly. She worked hard to bait Trump, using the word “crazy” at one point to describe his contributions to the conversation and speculating that he wasn’t as rich as he claimed he was.
“First, maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is,” Clinton said. “Maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks. Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.”
Trump took the bait, because he knows no other way, interrupting Clinton over and over.
The debate then moved to the topic of race relations. Trump defended his questioning of President Barack Obama’s birthplace, saying that, in fact, he did the president a favor. “I was the one who got him to produce the birth certificate, and I think I did a good job,” he said.
Clinton’s rebuttal was among her most effective moments, which she transitioned into a reminder to the public that when he began his career as a real estate developer, Trump explicitly discriminated against African-Americans.
To defend himself, Trump focused on the fact that after he was sued by the Department of Justice ― Richard Nixon’s DOJ, a fact that wasn’t mentioned ― he settled the case and admitted no wrongdoing.
As the debate moved to foreign policy, Trump failed to hit Clinton’s main vulnerability, her hawkishness, by repeatedly lying about his own position on the Iraq war. “I did not support the war in Iraq,” he said. Tape of him saying he did support it in 2002, he said, shouldn’t be believed, because he hadn’t thought about the issue much.
And that, more than anything, was the impression the debate left: Trump hasn’t thought about this stuff much. He’s not ready to be president. His odd campaign set awfully low expectations, but, paradoxically, high ones as well. He had to show he was ready to be president. He didn’t.
Trump has been gaining on Clinton in recent weeks, and has brought the race close to a tie. If it were held tomorrow, however, Clinton would win, and Trump did nothing to change that dynamic Monday night.