Notes for Next Time

(Photo: AP/David Goldman)

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are introduced during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on September 26.

The consensus is that Hillary Clinton won the first debate handily. Yet despite Donald Trump’s bizarre behavior during and after the debate, the polls show only a modest bounce in Clinton’s favor.

We have been here before. Trump has a bad week, Clinton takes the lead—only to have the race fall back to a near tie.

What might she do better in the next debate on October 9, which is a town hall format with spontaneous questions posed by an audience of undecided voters?

Seemingly, this format favors Clinton, who seems to think better on her feet than Trump when confronted with questions her advisers might not have anticipated. At the same time, the town hall leaves a little less room for the sort of direct give and take that was at the Hofstra debate, in which Clinton was able to bait Trump into losing his initial cool and becoming steadily more reckless.

I am in a minority of commentators, in that my experience was that Clinton won the first debate, but not overwhelmingly. In the first half hour, Trump clearly had the upper hand.

There were several missed Clinton opportunities. She might have scored more decisively had she not stuck so closely to pre-scripted talking points, especially when Trump gave her huge openings for ad libs.

And some of the scripted replies were themselves weak. In general, her positive talking points were wonky. They sounded like a policy paper.

Trump is doing a great job persuading viewers not to vote for him. Clinton needs to convince them to vote for her, and not just as the lesser evil.

Clinton reeled off several policy ideas that could help working families and young people. “I want us to invest in you,” she said. “I want us to invest in your future. That means jobs in infrastructure, in advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, clean, renewable energy, and small business, because most of the new jobs will come from small business. We also have to make the economy fairer. That starts with raising the national minimum wage and also guarantee, finally, equal pay for women's work.”

Fine as far as it goes, but what was missing was the passion: The indignation that the system is rigged against the young; that the vast majority of working families have been losing both incomes and economic security; that billionaires—like Trump!—have been getting too much of the pie.

Trump himself illustrates just how they do it—by not paying taxes, by stiffing their workers, by manipulating the bankruptcy laws, by ripping off customers. Trump is a poster child for all the ways the rules are rigged! Clinton needs to sound more like Elizabeth Warren.

Trump was speaking clear, muscular prose. He was wrong in much of what he claimed, but his points were clear to their intended audience. The debate’s first exchange, on trade, was a clear win for Trump. He said: “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us. We have to stop our companies from leaving the United States and, with it, firing all of their people.”

Clinton’s reply did not engage Trump’s claim. Instead, she said: “Well, I think that trade is an important issue. Of course, we are 5 percent of the world's population; we have to trade with the other 95 percent. And we need to have smart, fair trade deals.”

Sorry, not good enough. Lame, actually. Advantage: Trump.

Clinton needs a forward-looking plan to make sure trade helps American workers. Labor standards in trade deals would be a good start.

She also needs to debunk Trump’s claim that American companies are leaving because taxes here are too high. They are leaving for the cheap labor and because the tax code allows them to book profits in tax havens. Change the rules!

Another missed opportunity was the way Clinton explained the 2008 financial collapse: “We had the worst financial crisis, the Great Recession, the worst since the 1930s. That was in large part because of tax policies that slashed taxes on the wealthy, failed to invest in the middle class, took their eyes off of Wall Street, and created a perfect storm.”

Are you kidding? The collapse happened because banks were allowed to run wild. It had nothing to with tax cuts. Several administrations, including her husband’s, were complicit in the deregulation. But the worse excesses, as the bubble was becoming obvious, were under George W. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress. She needs to point that out, and to make clear that she will never again permit bankers to destroy working people.

Hillary also needs to let herself relax and do some spontaneous counterpunching, as the opportunity arises. When Trump said not paying taxes was smart business, she needed to ask, “Do you think people who pay their taxes are suckers? Losers? How are you going to finance all that infrastructure if people don’t pay their taxes?”

One talking point that she surely rehearsed but missed was Russia. Does Trump really admire Putin? Does he trust Putin? Does he think Putin has America’s best interests at heart? Does he think Putin is rooting for Trump because the two can do business—or because the naïve, ill-informed Trump can be sucker-punched?

And then there is Trump’s preposterous claim that he is going to bring back coal. Sorry, even in the coal fields, machines have replaced most human jobs and coal is mostly no longer cost-competitive with natural gas, even if we scrapped all pollution regulations. Regular people actually know that. Clinton has a plan for bringing jobs to Appalachia. She should talk about it, and ding Trump’s plain ignorance.

Clinton, doubtless, will be all over the disclosure that Trump got to deduct more than $900 million in paper losses, allowing him to pay little or no taxes for more than a decade. Donald, should that provision of the tax law be repealed?

And Trump, as he becomes more unhinged by the day, is very likely to raise the issue of Bill’s infidelities. It backfired on the Republicans when they pushed Clinton’s impeachment, and it will backfire on the serial adulterer, Trump.

Hillary has been there; she doesn’t need my advice on that one. She has the wind at her back—now she needs to relax and maximize the moment.

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