I previously posted, only a bit sarcastically, that Hillary Clinton won last night’s Republican debate. Here is what I mean. Anything that does not kill Donald Trump makes him stronger. Anything that makes him stronger increases his chances of becoming the Republican nominee. And if he is the Republican nominee, I am convinced, Hillary Clinton becomes the next President. Although I thought Trump was, as usual, unimpressive last night, I saw nothing to make me think that he will weaken over the coming days and weeks leading to Iowa and New Hampshire. Consequently, he is one step closer to the nomination, and thus Clinton is a step closer to the presidency.
All of that said – and, of course, anything could happen, especially where the Trump campaign is involved – Trump displayed a serious weakness last night that was captured in two distinct but intertwined moments, and that I hope other candidates noticed and will use to their advantage in the next debates.
First, Jeb Bush’s attack on Trump finally, and quite visibly, roiled Trump’s emotions. Trump had no substantive response – of course, he never does, and more on that in a moment – but instead engaged in his usual dismissive facial gestures and put-downs. Chief among them is his standard claim that he has a big lead in the polls, as compared to Bush (and, generally, the others). But Bush then missed his opportunity, as did the other candidates. When Trump is attacked on a debate stage by Hillary Clinton, who will be standing or sitting right next to him, what will be his response? I have grave doubts that Trump will be able to claim a 27-point lead – or a 10-point lead, or any lead – against Clinton come next Autumn. So when Trump’s comeback can no longer be based on polling, with what is he left?
That should have been Bush’s next punch: “That’s fine, Donald. You may be leading against me. But what are you going to do next Fall when Hillary Clinton comes after you during a debate with a serious line of questioning, and she’s leading the polls against you? What clever insult will you have then? You’ll have to answer the question – and you won’t have an answer. You never do.”
Which leads me to my next observation. In the post-debate interviews, Trump sat down with Chris Matthews. Although the interview was mostly genial, Matthews ended the interview by asking Trump whether Barack Obama was a legitimate president. This was clearly a reference to Trump’s birtherism. Trump gave his now-standard line, that he doesn’t talk about it anymore. That is a woefully inept and juvenile response. Matthews was left unsatisfied, calling it Trump’s “original sin.”
Every candidate in every remaining debate should bring this to Trump’s attention and force him to answer. Every journalist interviewing Trump should do what Matthews did last night. If Trump is to be the nominee, he should have to answer on the birtherism, once and for all. I would be shocked if Hillary Clinton did not raise this time after time, even in the debates, if Trump is the nominee. The smart move for Trump: confess error and say it’s time to move on. But Trump rarely is smart about these things. If he does not admit that Barack Obama was born in the United States, it will dog him for the next year. I am a little surprised the other Republican candidates have not raised it thus far. They should, and they should relentlessly mock him for it. Of course it will not kill him; it may only make him stronger. But failing to raise it gives him a pass; and no nominee should get a pass on that kind of stuff. Clinton certainly won’t ignore it.
Trump can taste victory now. It’s in his sights. Even if he does not win the nomination, and the odds remain against it, that possibility can no longer be easily dismissed. Republicans need to find an answer to: “if Trump is the nominee, will you support him?” It is no longer acceptable to say, “he won’t be the nominee.” Hillary Clinton knows this. And she is smiling.