The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump served as a microcosm of their characters, styles and campaigns. Clinton arrived prepared, poised and ready to bait Trump into responding to her most provocative attacks: his temperament, his tax records, his dubious business practices, and his lack of preparation. Trump arrived undeservedly confident of his debating skills and ability to do one-on-one to Clinton what he had done to a shelf-full of Republican primary opponents: bluster, intimidate and spew half-truths (at best).
Let’s be clear that what is important about the debate aftermath is not who scored the most points; this isn’t a high school state championship after all. What matters is (a) how voters – especially undecided voters, who hopefully watched – evaluate the candidates’ performances; (b) how the media describe what happened for those who didn’t watch or who need some guidance in sifting the wheat from the chaff; and (c) what the polls reflect in the days to come.
The immediate reactions were mixed, as they always are. CNN, whose commentators gave Trump’s performance higher marks than did MSNBC, ran a quick poll that found viewer evaluations favored Clinton by nearly a 2-1 margin. Democratic commentators naturally gushed over Clinton’s performance, especially James Carville who appeared nearly giddy in the debate’s aftermath. Importantly, Republican commentators, most notably Steve Schmidt (a former McCain strategist), was almost as apoplectic about Trump’s undisciplined behavior.
They key question for me, as with all issues related to campaigns, is whether the performance of each candidate persuaded voters to move out of the undecided category. It is difficult to believe that Trump’s vintage performance would move an undecided voter into his camp, whereas it is reasonable to conclude that Clinton’s measured, serious demeanor and exhibition of detailed information might well persuade some undecideds that she is the superior candidate. In that regard, rather than parsing each statement or answer, she was the winner.
The climax of the debate for me, hands down, was Trump’s unwise foray into a discussion of his temperament. In my earlier blog last weekend, I highlighted the temperament issue as the one I would have Hillary focus on; as it turns out, Trump did it for her. To be honest, I nearly dropped my pen when he claimed his greatest asset is his temperament. OK, let’s be clear: when your opponent hands you the line you can run with till Election Day, it’s been a good evening. Trump may be able to lay claim to some strengths as a candidate – the articulator of lower income white angst comes to mind – but no reasonably intelligent person would conclude his temperament is an asset, let alone his “greatest” asset. I could practically hear the film editors rushing to the editing room to re-cut all those commercials showing a volatile, explosive, vulgar Trump to insert his absurd statement as the introductory overlay. I wasn’t disappointed: it showed up within 12 hours, and it’s a doozy; plan on seeing it non-stop from now to November. https://m.youtube.com/watch?wpisrc=nl_daily202&v=Y7ys8bmTf5U&feature=youtu.be&wpmm=1
Clinton’s performance was not perfect by any means; occasionally she slipped into demonstrating that she was the smartest person in the room, reeling off acronyms and the names of obscure foreign leaders or adversaries. Her comeback on his charge that she lacked stamina was good – highlighting her globetrotting as Secretary of State and her 11 hour testimony on Benghazi before a House committee — but he had a good response (“wrong experience”). More importantly, her answer opened what could have been a devastating segue into a discussion, in the hands of a more skilled debater, of her shortcomings as Secretary of State. But she also projected voluminous knowledge, an ability to parry Trump with a gentle put-down instead of an off-putting battering ram, and a willingness to sustain a smile on the split screen during Trump’s venal attacks. She skillfully raised differentiating issues that will cut against Trump with that undecided portion of the electorate –- equal pay, minimum wage, student loan relief – and found opportunities to remind viewers of his vile and un-presidential attacks on women, his shoddy business practices and his refusal to release his tax returns: all issues a voter not immersed or interested in policy nuances would easily understand. But she missed an opportunity to follow-up on his charges about manufacturers exporting jobs by pointing out that all of the products bearing his name are made overseas.
Trump showed some strength early on, but quickly dissipated into an angry, uncouth loudmouth who lacked both the substantive knowledge and – sorry, Donald – temperament to be President. He was doing pretty well attacking Clinton’s positions on trade, ISIS and deficit spending, and he forced her into what was unquestionably her worst stumble of the night, a full-throated defense of NAFTA. (You can be certain that mistake will be replayed exhaustively in battleground states hard-hit by job losses including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.) But Trump missed numerous opportunities to return to the issue and remind viewers what Clinton had just said, an amateur’s mistake. Meanwhile, he displayed an incredible tin ear to middle income voters, boasting he had paid no taxes on over $600 million in income last year (“That was smart”), hoping for a collapse in the 2008 housing market (“That’s called business, by the way”) and defending his refusal to pay contractors working on his construction projects. (Clinton should have mentioned there are thousands of such suits). As an attorney, Clinton should have pounced on Trump’s implication that he was innocent of racial discrimination in his rental practices because the Department of Justice suits were settled without an admission of guilt, which is no exoneration or dismissal of the charges. I was fascinated by Trump’s persistent assertion that he knew about foreign nations because he owned properties in various locales, and his admission that he took advantage of bankruptcy laws because he could.
Perhaps his most revealing statement all evening is one that voters should carefully consider. “My obligation right now” (note “right now,” in the midst of a presidential campaign) is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do.” The American voter has reason to expect a little more attention to their well-being and security from a candidate for President.
Overall, a decent night for HRC, but not a knockout. She deserves credit for being knowledgeable, managing Trump’s adolescent behavior and finding multiple opportunities for reminding voters of Trump’s unsuitability. Also, I give her and her team great credit for taking the debate deadly seriously, preparing assiduously, and not assuming that she could simply rely on experience and knowledge. She will have to demonstrate the same discipline in the two remaining debates and not fall prey to the assumption that because she vanquished Trump once, he will prove similarly inept in their future encounters.