Like millions of other Americans, I watched the debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Monday night, and like millions of other Americans I was unsurprised by the lack of coherent policy argumentation by either side.
The early morning talking heads are giving the nod to Clinton, but I would say that neither Clinton nor Trump won the debate. There were no defining “There you go again” sort of moments for either of them. Instead it was just two people talking over each other for more than 90 minutes while incoherently lying and denying in turn.
If I were forced to give a binary answer, I would say that Clinton came out with the slightest of edges. The entire premise of The Donald’s campaign is that he is a big bad macho man, telling it like it is, insulting his opponents and silencing them with his bombastic style.
In this first debate he was none of that. Interrupting Hillary came across less as a display of overpowering masculinity than the rudeness of a schoolboy. He rarely called Hillary out for anything aside from a meek (for Trump) reference to her email scandal and some vague allusions to bad things in her past.
He certainly did not deliver on his threats to bring up the nastier parts of the Clintons’ past, and while that may have been the more polite decision, it did Trump no favors. At this point he is fully defined for the electorate and straying away from the persona that he has cultivated. Trump trying to come across as some sort of Reagan Republican is not going to get him anywhere.
For better or worse, Trump has been at his best when he is left to his own devices, especially in the debates, and he is at his best as a counter-puncher, responding to slights real and perceived with overpowering grandiloquence and ridiculous insults. Hillary called him out – especially at the end – for being racist, sexist, liar and someone who does not pay taxes. While I dislike mudslinging on principle, from an effectiveness standpoint this was the time for the Donald to come roaring back, and he failed miserably.
Trump did not mention almost anything about immigration or his “wall.” For me, this points to if not a pivot than a pulling back from what a president Trump would almost assuredly dismiss as rhetoric or part of his negotiation for the presidency.
Hillary also benefits from being a woman when matched up with Trump. The man has a problem with battling ideas instead of people, and that seems to be amplified around the opposite sex. When Trump called Jeb out for being “low- energy” the media laughed along. Trump deployed the same tactic against Hillary and said that she lacked the “stamina” to be president he was immediately attacked by the media as a sexist. It was easier for Hillary to attack Trump for his avowed sexism in the past – the entire exchange over 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado was a train wreck for the Republican nominee, who tried to stand his ground at the worst possible moment.
For Hillary, she did what she had to too win this debate. She maintained her composure, never came across as flustered and landed some blows on Trump, which he was not able to counter. She knew what she was talking about and was able to make the obviously less- rehearsed and less knowledgeable Trump look just that during the exchanges. When Trump called her out for taking a break from campaigning to practice for the debate, it was rather ironic. Perhaps he should consider doing the same next month before they meet again.
At the beginning of the debate, Hillary did look a little nervous, and I was already thinking back to 2008 when she was really thrown off her game by then-Senator Obama – as an aside, I would pay so much money to see the president debate Trump; I really think that the always cool Obama would be the perfect debater to crush Donald. She quickly took control of the debate, however, and her preparation came through.
Trump may be able to win the next one. He needs to go back to the drawing board, get back to his roots and come out swinging in the next debate. He is only going to beat Hillary if he can throw her off her game. Calling her “Secretary Clinton” instead of “Crooked Hillary” is not going to get the job done. It is simply inauthentic and ineffective for America’s least orthodox politician to try and approach this like he is Jeb Bush.
I thought Lester Holt did an excellent job moderating the debate. He “let the players play” as the old saw goes, and only intervened when it was an egregious overuse of time on the part of either candidate. His questions were tough and pointed something which especially seemed to throw Trump – who I maintain was babied by the moderators during the primary – off quite a bit. If there was bias by Holt, it was not visible to me. The lack of bias is what hurt Trump.
My final thought: Hillary came out all in red, and Donald wore a prominent blue tie. The lesson? In 2016 the candidates are merely two sides of the same coin, corrupt would-be centrists who really do not give a fig about the public good. If they were real, Janus would be so proud of America.