He'll be the same in the second debate, right? I'm beginning to wonder. And I'm wondering whether we're being set up for a "Trump comeback" moment in the news cycle.
Before the first debate, it was assumed that Clinton would be much better prepared than Trump, and much more knowledgeable -- but there was a sense that Trump would at least be great TV, and thus would be (as they say) compelling, if not exactly presidential. Now the conventional wisdom is that he won't even succeed in the next debate on Trumpian terms. There's a sense that Trump's failure to engage in prep will doom him again.
This sets the bar even lower for him.
For an example of this conventional wisdom, see the Politico story "Trump Blows Off Debate Tune-Up," which is about a town hall event Trump held last night in New Hampshire:
The format was nothing like what Trump will face in St Louis, when half the questions will be posed by uncommitted voters, and the candidates will have two minutes to respond to each question as Martha Raddatz of ABC and Anderson Cooper of CNN serve as moderators.But it doesn't matter that Trump took only a dozen questions -- at 2012's town hall debate, there were only ten. And, yes, Trump took questions only from fans, but most of the questions at presidential town hall debates aren't particularly barbed.
On Thursday night, Howie Carr, a conservative radio host and Trump booster, played the role of moderator, and the crowd was hand-picked by his campaign. The audience didn’t even ask Trump their questions. Carr did so on their behalf. Before the event, Carr had said Trump would take 20 questions. He stayed for about a dozen....
Trump’s campaign did place a two-minute countdown clock in front of their candidate on Thursday. He repeatedly blew past that time limit anyway.
Here were the questions at the 2012 town hall debate:
Mr. President, Governor Romney, as a 20-year-old college student, all I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment. What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?Most of these questions aren't tough. The toughest was the Benghazi question, which was directed at the candidate who was defending a record in the federal government (as Clinton will be). There are likely to be tougher questions than these for Trump, but there'll be a lot of softball questions as well.
Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?
Governor Romney, you have stated that if you're elected president, you would plan to reduce the tax rates for all the tax brackets and that you would work with the Congress to eliminate some deductions in order to make up for the loss in revenue. Concerning the - these various deductions, the mortgage deductions, the charitable deductions, the child tax credit and also the - oh, what's that other credit? I forgot.... Oh, I remember. The education credits, which are important to me, because I have children in college. What would be your position on those things, which are important to the middle class?
In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?
Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter, because I'm disappointed with the lack of progress I've seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America's economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?
Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I'm not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.
This question actually comes from a brain trust of my friends at Global Telecom Supply in Mineola yesterday. We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?
President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
The outsourcing of American jobs overseas has taken a toll on our economy. What plans do you have to put back and keep jobs here in the United States?
Hi, Governor. I think this is a tough question. To each of you. What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate? Using specific examples, can you take this opportunity to debunk that misperception and set us straight?
What about Trump's failure to hone sharp answers for a debate in which his responses will be timed? Over at The Washington Post, Greg Sargent says that Republicans should be worried about this clip from last night's forum:
Asked by a recent college graduate who is struggling to find work how Trump’s plans would help him, Trump got started by launching into a monologue about the heat in the room that lasted a full 30 seconds. Note that during that ramble, Trump also managed to segue into a complaint about “dishonest” media coverage that had portrayed him as “sweating” at a different previous event.Sargent sees a trainwreck. I see a guy who, even though he goes off on a couple of tangents, spends most of the time feeling the questioner's pain. Does he offer any concrete solutions? No -- he just boasts that he'll get the job done. But empty boasts and faux-empathy with disappointed Americans got him this far. And debate questions often don't get real responses. I think answers like this will satisfy the public, and a demeanor like this will delight the pundits.
Trump did then spend a solid minute reiterating his message about trade and about how he’ll stop companies like Apple from manufacturing parts of the iPhone in multiple other countries (presumably through Trumpian tariffs). But then, at a moment when he intended to extol the greatness of the people of this country, he veered off once again into a discussion of how big the crowds were at his rallies, and then into a discussion of how those crowds were bigger than those at Bernie Sanders’s rallies, and from there into still another discussion, of how Sanders “made a deal with the Devil” by endorsing Hillary Clinton. When Trump finally found his way back to his trade message, he wrapped up with only the most cursory nod to the person who had originally asked the question.
(And if he'd been on a two-minute clock, he would have been cut off before most of that Sanders digression. As it is, he dispenses with the question in less than three minutes.)
I worry that in a town hall format Trump can be the gregarious Big Man on Campus inviting the crowd (including the questioners, who are often shy and nervous) to sit at the cool kids' table and exclude the unpopular nerd girl on the stage.
Of course, it will be up to Clinton to throw Trump off his game. (The one thing he's not practicing for is an antagonist on the stage -- and, yeah, that's a big omission.) Clinton will have to rattle him again. I just hope the Clinton campaign hasn't invested too much in the "Who cares if you're rude if you get damaging soundbites from the opponent?" strategy that was used by Tim Kaine in the vice presidential debate. Clinton really can't afford to be seen as unpleasant -- she had an easy time of it in the first debate because Trump was obnoxious from beginning to end. But if he actually has grasped that he should stay positive, she's going to have a harder time.
And remember, the press wants this to be a horserace. The polls are going decidedly in Clinton's direction, so the press is rooting for a Trump comeback. So don't be too confident -- a Trump upset could happen.