Trump screwed up. After a month of exercising more self-restraint than he has in years, he reverted to form in the first debate, whether by conscious choice or impulse, and now he has a problem. What does he do in the second and third debate? For that, I return to my 2000 analogy.
After Al Gore's first debate performance and the criticism of his eye rolls and sighs, he changed his demeanor. Was he criticized for the change? It was discussed, sure, but it wasn't treated as a collapse in and of itself. The stories written were of Gore's attempts at calibration. Sure, he would have preferred other stories written, but the change itself wasn't treated as a total capitulation.
And there's the Trump issue. Trump makes such a big deal about never showing weakness, and always doubling down (witness yesterday morning's Alicia Machado mess) that he has a bigger problem than Gore did. If Trump tries to change his performance dramatically, the way Gore did, it will be an implicit admission of error in the first debate and a sign of weakness, which Trump cannot show. Yet, if he doesn't change, he will give another bad debate performance. One bad debate? No big deal, necessarily. Obama blew the first debate in 2012, and it didn't matter. Three debates like what Trump just did? Hillary is shimmying in her pant-suit just thinking about it...
So, does Trump change and show weakness? That undercuts his whole schtick. One cutting remark from Hillary about a change in his demeanor and he'll explode anyway. Does he dig in further? This wouldn't have been an issue if he had given a controlled debate performance, the way he has controlled himself for the last month or so, but that is the difference between giving speeches from a teleprompter and trying to keep his cool on stage for 90 minutes with Clinton right there.
And this returns me to an old theme. Is Trump actually strategic? Maybe he has just been lucky enough that his unique characteristics have lined up with tastes so far. However, his behavior at key points has also shown a lack of strategy. The KHAN!!! incident. (Damn, I keep doing that). Now, fat-shaming Alicia Machado and continuing to dig in. A lot, for Trump, isn't strategy. It is impulse. The reason he didn't give a controlled performance on Monday is that he couldn't.
Will he try next time? Maybe, but if he does, who knows if he can, and even if he contemplates it, he might perceive the attempt as weakness. That's the dilemma. He dug himself quite a hole. And we know what Trump does when that happens. Usually, he keeps digging.