The great Republican national nightmare is at hand: Donald Trump may indeed carry them all down to defeat. The fear that Republicans have expressed, very sotto voce of course, is that Trump would show himself in the first debate as woefully unprepared to be president – because he lacked the discipline to prepare for the debate.
And that is just what happened. You can tell just how unhappy Republicans are by listening to Rush Limbaugh, insisting Trump “won” the debate, or Mayor Rudy Giuliani insisting Trump forego further debates or at least bring up the Monica Lewinsky scandal at the next debate.
And indeed the Mayor is right: when Hillary Clinton tricked him to running down a rabbit hole following her invocation of some unknown Miss Universe contestant Trump apparently once insulted, the proper response was: “Mrs Clinton I would not go there, unless you want a debate tonight on powerful men who abuse women and the people who enable them.”
But Trump was not ready to parry Clinton on that or anything else, because he had not practiced to respond on that or anything else. Surely he knew the birther business would come up, yet his answer on that was flummoxed and incomprehensible. Lester Holt lobbed him a softball on cyber security and instead of using it to pivot to Clinton’s use of an unsafe e-mail system as Secretary of State he talked about 400 pound hackers on a bed.
The great danger in this performance is that Trump has, in front of 84 million people, proven the Democrats point that he us unfit for the job, and done it all by himself. More than anything else the Trump campaign needs to hire some historians who can tell them that Richard Nixon lost the Presidency in1960 because he did not wear makeup in the first debate; Gerald Ford lost the presidency in1976 by not seeming to know that Poland was Communist; and Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 by not being able to counter Ronald Reagan’s simple question, are you better off today than you were four years ago.
Debates matter; debates make presidents. But this year the debates will even matter more, because of the impacts of both candidates on down ballot races.
Republicans in California are hanging on by a thread; the registration trends in many GOP held districts are simply atrocious. For their incumbents to survive this election year they need Trump to run at least as well as Mitt Romney did in 2012. In 2012, Republican voters did come out and vote for Romney; but this year there is a great danger of Republicans simply staying home out of disgust over Trump.
That is certainly what happened in the June primary where Democrat accounted for 60 percent of voter turnout and Republicans only 26 percent. Sen. Bernie Sanders in losing the June California primary received more votes than all the Republican candidates combined.
In the June primary, the unopposed Trump received 1,665,135 votes; in the November 2012 general election Mitt Romney received 4,839,958 votes. While this was only 37 percent statewide, it was good enough in Republican districts to save their incumbents. If Trump cannot find five million Californians willing to vote for him this fall, he is going to drag many Republicans down to defeat because in California we no longer split our tickets.
The wiser Republicans in Washington know what they are up against. Clinton came to the debate having memorized her poll tested, focus group driven answers and was able to incorporate five carefully rehearsed sound bites into every response. Trump was unfit, unrested and unready.
You cannot make a first impression twice, but you can undo a bad first debate performance, as President Obama did in 2012. If we do not see Donald Trump practicing in Trump Tower with mock debates for the second debate on October, and ready with the kind of canned sound bites Clinton used so effectively on Monday, then we will know this race is actually at an end.