WASHINGTON – Donald Trump had plenty of moments on Monday night that would have disqualified any other candidate in a presidential debate: bragging about getting through a discrimination investigation “with no admission of guilt”; saying he had not “given lots of thought” to NATO; noting that he often took advantage of laws; taking pride in having paid no taxes some years; and referring to the man in the White House as “your president.”
But you could have compiled a similar list in nearly any fortnight of the Trump campaign, and he is still competitive with Hillary Clinton in the polls. We’ve become inured to Trump.
He was better at getting his message across than she was, because his message was simpler. We need more law and order, he said; we need to respect police even as we reform them, she parried. Our allies are taking advantage of us, he kept saying; she talked about the value of alliances without responding to the point. He said that she had been in politics too long; she let it go. Even on trade, where the positions they articulated were pretty similar — they both want tougher enforcement of trade laws, say they are free traders, and reject the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership — she sounded more like someone who wanted to be on all sides of the issue at once.
Trump also continued to cross ideological lines. He refused to let Clinton get to his left on child care, as other Republican candidates would have, saying that they disagreed only on details. He said the U.S. couldn’t be the world’s policeman, a line no Republican nominee in decades would have used against the Democrats. He even defended Bernie Sanders from her allies’ attacks.
But Trump did not have to fill as much time during the crowded Republican-primary debates as he did at Hofstra, and he seemed to run out of things to say early. She, on the other hand, got better after her over-scripted beginning. She took shot after shot: at his tax return, his tax plan, his business record and his history of demeaning women.
He wasn’t as versatile. Sometimes he let himself get put on the defensive. By the end, he was just whining that her advertisements were “not nice.”
How you think the debate went depends on where you think the race was at its outset. He has had momentum, so his followers have been more buoyant than hers lately. But she has remained ahead in the poll averages, and polls keep showing that voters think she is qualified and he isn’t.
So the fact that she didn’t disqualify him was not enough to make this debate a win for him. He needed to do more than continue to get across his nationalist message once again. He needed to show himself qualified to people who doubt it. He didn’t. She won this round.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”