Last night was the first presidential debate between the general-election contenders. Here are six takeaways.
1) Trump Trounced Early
“The first 30 minutes of the first presidential debate is the most important time slot in the general election, say historians and politics professionals.” So wrote the Boston Globe’s James Pindell a few days ago.
Donald Trump hopes that’s true. He had a very strong opening at last night’s debate, compared to Clinton. The debate began with a question to her about why she would be good for the economy. She gave a platitudinous answer about infrastructure and renewable energy. She ominously mentioned she wanted companies to start doing profit-sharing.
Trump responded by saying that jobs are being lost to other countries, that he’d reduce taxes on small and large businesses, and that he’d renegotiate trade deals. Trump began his line of attack about how Hillary Clinton has been in or around government for decades but hasn’t fixed any of the problems. She gave a groaner of an over-rehearsed line about something she called the “Trumped Up Trickle Down.” She brought up her husband’s presidency. Trump countered with NAFTA and whether people who had lost manufacturing jobs in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania would agree that the trade deals she supports were so hot.
They got in the first of a few “fact” squabbles. He said she supported the Trans Pacific Partnership. She said she didn’t, or in Clintonesque terms, she said she didn’t once it was fully negotiated.
TRUMP: You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it’s the finest deal you’ve ever seen.
TRUMP: And then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it.
CLINTON: Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated…
Not much later, she made direct appeals to fact checkers to help her out. It was a very tough beginning during the time that most viewers were watching.
2) The Candidates Had Weird Demeanors
Hillary Clinton’s debate presence improved significantly over time. The weakest part was the beginning of the debate. She came out and called him “Donald,” while he called her “Secretary Clinton.” She had a weird, obviously false, and inauthentic smile. He seemed his usual self, but less comfortable. He seemed under the weather, while she seemed far healthier than a few weeks ago, when she was unable to stand of her own accord at a 9/11 memorial ceremony.
As the debate wore on, he seemed to be having less fun — which is how he muscles through so many of the 2016 pseudo-events — while she gained her footing. She dropped the false smile, although it cropped up at weird moments. When the otherwise silent crowd seethed over her email deletion scheme, she had a grin as wide as her face.
The overarching message was that he was his authentic, if unlikable, self. And she was smug and a bit fake. She began the debate by saying, “Donald, it’s good to be with you,” setting expectations against truth-telling.
3) Clinton Regained Footing Midway Through
The first third of the debate belonged to Trump. The second third was where Clinton did best. Her media allies had spent the last couple of weeks demanding that the media assist her in fact-checking. But she showed that candidates are best served by fighting their own battles. She was able to get in zingers that seemed more natural. A line about how she gets blamed for everything may have seemed whiney, but it was delivered well.
Moderator Lester Holt pushed Trump on his tax returns, ineffectively. But Clinton did a somewhat better job, making the point that his case for election is that he’s a good businessman, so the voters need to see his records. She did less well when she said that “he’s paid nothing in federal taxes” whatsoever.
Trump hit her hard on her emails. She said she’d made a mistake and he responded, “That was more than a mistake. That was done purposely. Okay? That was not a mistake. That was done purposely. When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth so they’re not prosecuted, when you have the man that set up the illegal server taking the Fifth, I think it’s disgraceful. And believe me, this country thinks it’s — really thinks it’s disgraceful, also.”
But then, inexplicably, Trump went back to his finances. Clinton then went after his history of stiffing little guys. He responded with more about his finances.
Clinton was then asked about racism and gave a fine answer about gun violence. Trump’s was focused more on law and order.
Trump voluntarily asked for time to talk about how he shares Clinton’s view that the bureaucracy should be empowered to place individuals on a list without due process that would remove the right to keep and bear arms.
Then Clinton argued that “under the current mayor, crime has continued to drop, including murders.” Trump said “you’re wrong.” She said, “No, I’m not.” Murders are up, according to just released FBI statistics.
Holt brought up birtherism, and Trump said something about Sidney Blumenthal (the Clinton aide who pushed Obama conspiracy theories on reporters). Except he didn’t really explain who that was. Clinton then brought up an effective hit about Trump businesses being sued for racial discrimination. Trump responded by saying the company settled without an admission of guilt. Ooft.
4) Both Candidates Failed to Land Easy Hits
The final third was just a mess. It was uncomfortable to watch.
Holt asked Clinton an anodyne question about cybersecurity. She responded about how important it was. Somehow, and I still don’t quite know how this happened, Trump did not respond by pointing out Clinton’s failure to practice any regard for cybersecurity herself. Instead they bickered about who was responsible for the DNC hack.
They then devolved into word salad regarding status-of-forces agreements and NATOs. I doubt anyone followed them.
Clinton had a good bit about the need to honor commitments. Trump conveyed that Clinton has had ample opportunity to fix problems but hasn’t done so. He said foreign commitments need to clearly benefit the United States for the country to continue honoring them.
Holt asked Trump about mean things he’d said about Clinton. He said he thought she lacked stamina. She responded that she had testified before Congress for 11 hours once, referencing her testimony for her role in the Benghazi disaster that resulted in the assassination of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Trump said “Let me tell you. Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience.” He cited her dealings with Iran and Iraq.
Clinton then decided to talk about how Trump is mean to her. She said Trump has said, “Women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men.” Does anyone disagree with that? I’m sure there are far better examples to point out. She called him a misogynist. He responded by saying he’s said mean things to Rosie O’Donnell but that’s okay. He then asked for credit for not pointing out some mean information about Clinton. (We can safely presume it’s this year’s Bill Clinton-sized version of the media cover-up of John Edwards’ infidelities back in 2004.)
He was inarticulate. She was plodding.
5) Fundamentals Didn’t Change
Trump missed opportunities and was sloppy. His line about Clinton having experience, but bad experience, was great — but lost in the mumble of the 90-minute debate. Clinton was a better version of her same old self. She really prepared for a difficult debate partner and it paid off — but without any knock-out punch.
Trump’s defensiveness kept him off his core message. But despite the orgasmic media response to Clinton’s better-than-usual debate performance, have the fundamentals of the race changed?
Drew McCoy wrote, “Before declaring one ‘the winner’ and the other ‘the loser,’ consider their goals, their specific audiences, etc. Did they accomplish them?”
What did blue-collar voters in swing states get from Hillary Clinton in this debate? What did college-educated whites in the suburbs get from Trump in this debate?
6) Holt’s Uneven Performance
Vox reports that Lester Holt interrupted Donald Trump 58 percent more than he interrupted Hillary Clinton. This made most media observers elated. They had wanted a “fact” “checker” moderator. Holt tried to check Trump’s claims a few times, which was … fine.
The bigger problem with Holt was not that he largely kept out of the way and allowed the candidates to fight each other, as they should. The problem was the questions he asked.
The debate was supposed to be about “Achieving prosperity; America’s direction; and securing America.” His opening questions tended to be anodyne. His follow-ups were exclusively directed toward Trump. Just for a sample of how the debate went:
HOLT: Secretary Clinton, why are you a better choice than your opponent to create the kinds of jobs that will put more money into the pockets of American workers?
HOLT: Mr. Trump, the same question to you. It’s about putting money — more money into the pockets of American workers. You have up to two minutes.
HOLT: Secretary Clinton, would you like to respond?
HOLT: Let me follow up with Mr. Trump, if you can. You’ve talked about creating 25 million jobs, and you’ve promised to bring back millions of jobs for Americans. How are you going to bring back the industries that have left this country for cheaper labor overseas? How, specifically, are you going to tell American manufacturers that you have to come back?
HOLT, to Trump: Let me interrupt just a moment, but…
HOLT, to Trump: Back to the question, though. How do you bring back — specifically bring back jobs, American manufacturers? How do you make them bring the jobs back?
HOLT: Let me let Secretary Clinton get in here.
Holt repeatedly hit Trump on his tax returns. When the audience cheered Trump, he admonished the audience. He hit Trump on birtherism. He hit Trump on the Iraq War, and didn’t listen to Trump’s response at all before hitting him again. He brought up Trump’s mean comments to Clinton.
Well surely he had tough questions for Clinton, you say? You would be wrong. There was not a single tough question. Perhaps, if you count that Trump had to bring up her email scandal, we could mention when Holt said, “He also — he also raised the issue of your e-mails. Do you want to respond to that?”
Whoo boy. Nothing about her questionable judgment in foreign policy, from Libya to Russia. Nothing about her mean comments about “deplorables.” Nothing about her FBI investigation. Nothing about her foundation.
Trump had to raise the the secret emails, her flip-flopping of positions on trade agreements, how the Obama administration’s power vacuum in the Middle East has caused massive problems. On that point it’s worth mentioning that “Syria” was not mentioned once in tonight’s debate. Neither was health care. There was nothing about abortion or the family.
Trump’s signature “change” issues were not brought up in the nice way the status quo candidate was given questions. In some cases, they were not brought up at all. Immigration was not the topic of any question. In this sense, the questions had nothing to do with some of the issues that voters care the most about.
Trump should have kept his responses focused on what voters wanted to hear even if Holt and Clinton had other plans. Yes, Hillary was given nothing but slam dunks. But Trump still could have seized opportunities when questions touched near her email scandal or the FBI investigation. The cybersecurity softball was one such obvious opportunity.
When so many in the media have openly campaigned for Hillary, Holt’s efforts on her behalf and against Trump only further weaken trust in the media, already at historic lows. The completely over-the-top media glee over Hillary’s performance during and after the debate also didn’t help journalistic credibility.