One of the biggest ironies of the first presidential debate is that Donald Trump’s reluctance to aggressively attack Hillary Clinton has now given him the license to fully do so.
Going into the debate — his debut on the world’s biggest stage — everyone, including his closest aides, was telling him that he must achieve plausibility: That is, he needed to reassure voters by looking reasonable, confident and self-possessed. If he were able to demonstrate an even temperament and basic command of the issues, voters could picture him behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office — and Mrs. Clinton’s negative ads about his unfitness would melt away.
Mr. Trump took his marching orders seriously and pulled his punches, at one point even acknowledging his self-restraint: “I was going to say something really rough about Hillary and her family, but I told myself it was not nice. But she spent tons of money on horrible ads about me, and I’ve spent virtually nothing.”
Many are now demanding that he truly go on the attack. Since it’s in the political bloodstream that he did not hit her proactively the last time, he now has a free hand to up the ante without being stigmatized as an unsuitable hothead.
An Arkansas source says that Mrs. Clinton’s debate prep crew has coached her to maintain an air of superiority around Mr. Trump while trying to provoke him. They tell her to avoid getting upset so as not to feed the “Angry Hillary” narrative and to dismiss him as a serious contender every chance she gets.
Therein lies the critical lesson for Mr. Trump: No matter what abuse she hurls his way, he mustn’t let it misdirect him down a defensive rabbit hole. There’s no time for that.
During the first debate, for example, he could have put her away with a few snappy retorts, such as:
On the birther controversy: “Why are we even discussing the birther issue? Your team started it eight years ago when you ran against President Obama. I never ran against Mr. Obama and, as far as I know, he will be leaving office in January. Next question, please.”
On cybersecurity: “Great question. Maybe Mrs. Clinton would like to comment on the 33,000 emails she deleted with BleachBit, or why she deliberately endangered our nation’s most sensitive national security secrets by installing a private, unsecure, nongovernment server in the first place. Does anyone in the audience at home think what she did is OK? Think about it, folks: If you did that at your job, wouldn’t you get fired?”
On his personal and corporate history: “Bankruptcies? Inherited wealth? Very funny, I took out a loan 45 years ago and turned it into a multibillion dollar company. What I would like to hear about, Mrs. Clinton, is how you and your husband used your charitable foundation to enhance your personal wealth by selling out our country. While you’re at it, you might want to discuss your husband’s last-minute pardons to convicted felons like Mark Rich, who have also profited from your schemes. For you people at home, don’t take my word for it, check out the movie ‘Clinton Cash,’ which is available free of charge online.”
On her sanctimonious lecture about American values: “It’s funny to hear you talk about American values, Mrs. Clinton, when you don’t even have the patriotism to wear an American flag pin during a debate for the presidency.”
On his past positions on the Iraq war: “Interesting to hear your observations on my view of the war in Iraq. I was a private citizen when my city was attacked by Islamic terrorists. You were a senator. Refresh my memory: Didn’t you vote in favor of the war?”
On his past comments about women: “I see that you have to reach back 20 years to try to find something with which to attack me, and I understand it since you cannot run on your record. But this country has big problems — which were created in large part by you, the current president and your party. I am here to offer the American people concrete solutions that will directly improve their lives and restore America to greatness.
“But if you’d like to discuss the treatment of women, I’m more than happy to talk about your husband’s long record of rape and sexual assault, and your dogged efforts to smear and destroy the women who were involved with or accused your husband of such crimes.”
Any of those rejoinders would have done the trick, but he chose a gentler path to show that he’s not Dr. Strangelove. Having accomplished that, he is now free to attack and inflame her without being penalized.
If Mrs. Clinton thinks the final two debates are going to resemble the first one, she may face a very unpleasant surprise.
• Monica Crowley is editor of online opinion at The Washington Times.