It was way worse than that.
What you did, really, was squander the opportunity to make your case — after having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads to do exactly that. It’s one thing to seem as though you haven’t prepped, or to let your rivals get the best of you without hitting back, or to stand there with your upper lip curled into a frown, looking oddly reminiscent of the Grinch in that moment before he straps a pair of horns onto his quaking dog.
But the real damage was in failing to draw a contrast between your experience and everyone else’s.
Debates such as these aren’t really about neutralizing your weaknesses, even when you’re getting pounded from all sides. They’re about reinforcing your strengths each time you open your mouth.
You know who gets this? President Trump, oddly enough. As a candidate, Trump said things during the 2016 debates — “Millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood!” — that should have ruined him with a conservative audience. But he understood, instinctively, that his strength was his penchant to blurt out whatever was on his mind.
It didn’t matter what Trump was actually saying; what mattered was that he was shattering the maddening artifice of modern politics, and he did it over and over again.
Your strength here is obvious. The only other candidate on stage with any executive governing experience is a guy who basically ran a big college town, the population of which could fit into a precinct in Queens. The closest any of them (aside from Tom Steyer) have come to running a business is hawking cheap mugs that say things like “Billionaire Tears.” (That’s an actual product on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign website. I find it vaguely disturbing.)
Anyway, the point is that the best person to face off against Trump in November is a proven, successful executive — that’s your argument. Every single time someone on that stage pulls a pin out of a grenade and lobs it in your direction, you need to stick your résumé onto it and lob it back.
So when they come at you with “stop-and-frisk,” you tell them: Well, I know none of you has ever had the experience of taking over a huge city where millions of black residents are pleading with you to make the streets safer for their kids. I have. Some of the things you do in that situation have unintended consequences, and I’ve apologized for that. But I had an obligation to the victims, and I acted, and by the way, the city reelected me twice.
When Warren and Bernie Sanders make sinister mention of your billions, you say: Yeah, guilty as charged, I built a wildly successful company, whereas you’ve never successfully held a bake sale. Now, I guess I could have taken all that money and bought the Knicks — Lord knows they need the help. But I chose to run the country’s largest city for 12 years, and to fund national campaigns against gun violence and climate change, and to run for president. So I think I’m doing my part.
And when these problematic lawsuits come up, your best answer is something like: If anyone else up here had ever employed thousands of people, you’d know that there’s constant litigation from former employees. Sometimes it’s because, as a CEO, you make mistakes, and you have to learn from them; a lot of times it’s just frivolous. But as anyone who’s run a business would know, I’m not allowed to talk about them. So let’s use our time for something I can talk about, like the warming planet . . .
Also, just by the way, no one should ever use the word “consensual” to explain himself, unless he’s looking at five-to-15 years in medium security. Make a note of that on your wrist, maybe.
One final thought before I leave you to it. An actual smile never hurts. More like the Grinch after he’s heard all the singing in Whoville.
Even that would be a real step up.