How Donald Trump beat himself in the debate

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump

If you watched the debate last night, you saw Donald Trump – for the first third – exceed expectations. And then the wheels, engine, roof, trunk door, and more came off in an amazing display of self-immolation.

To be very clear, Trump beat himself more than Hillary Clinton beat him.

It all began with an answer about President Obama's citizenship that doubled-down on a crazy theory instead of saying these simple words – "I made a mistake, I was wrong, and I apologize."

Then, like a child whose ice cream was taken away, he melted down on question after question. He took the bait by interrupting, lobbing personal attacks, and making the case against his own candidacy by proving what people said – he has a serious temperament issue.

Even worse, his answers were nonsensical at times – and I'm not even going to highlight his lack of policy specifics. Rather, and here is a piece of advice for future debaters, don't bring up people that no one knows (e.g. Sidney Blumenthal) or reference celebrities (e.g. Rosie O'Donnell) to justify your personal attacks. A smart and disciplined candidate would have risen above these jibes, and pivoted back to what really matters – the American people.

It was a stunning display.

For Clinton, her tone was better than Trump's (but that's a low bar), but her knowledge, especially on foreign policy issues, made clear her strengths.

Her weakness in this debate?

Well, she is still not speaking to the frustrations or concerns that people feel. Her policies are there, as are the specifics, but the emotive frame is lacking. At times, especially early on, Trump owned this emotion. For example, when Trump spoke about trade and jobs going overseas, he connected.

If he had stayed focused there, he could have won this debate, but he didn't. Instead he played right into Clinton's hands. He lost his cool and his focus.

As for the impact this debate will have, don't expect major shifts just yet. But the damage of this debate to Trump was substantial.

If Trump loses this election, especially if it's a close loss, people will look back at this debate and remember it as a defining moment.

Looking ahead, Trump will get another chance, because this debate didn't necessarily change any minds, but it reminded in vivid color what voters dislike most about Trump. And that's why he lost. For that, Trump has no one to blame but himself.

Which begs the question: If he couldn't he control himself for this debate, can you reasonably expect anything different in the second debate?

Clinton may not have knocked Trump out, but two more debates like this and she won't have to. Trump will do it all by himself.

Commentary by Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and CEO of Park Street Strategies. Follow him on Twitter @chriskofinis.

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