Well, that’s over. As the first presidential debate approached, Hillary Clinton was the needlessly obsessive-compulsive, cramming for the big night, and Donald Trump was the snide goofball, the rich kid who knows he’ll always do fine, because he always has, blowing it off. The snide rich kid would try to get by on quick wit and charm, and the obsessive-compulsive policy wonk would try to look loose and open and pleasant, but she’s still a wonk – and Donald Trump had caught up to her in polls. Trump was going to win this thing. No one likes a nerd, and perhaps he could look just presidential enough so that folks would stop worrying that he’d crash the economy, start a race war, and get us all killed in a worldwide religious war that would go nuclear. He’d show that he wasn’t all that dangerous, and that she was boring, and a loser.
That wasn’t to be. She got to him and he lost it, temperamentally, and literally. Everyone saw what happened:
Donald Trump unrelentingly blamed the nation’s chronic problems on “typical politician” Hillary Clinton, yet he found himself mostly on the defensive in their first debate here Monday night as she denounced him for racial insensitivity, hiding potential conflicts of interest and “stiffing” those who helped build his business empire.
After circling each other for months, Clinton and Trump finally took the stage together for the first time, and each tried in a series of combative, acrimonious exchanges to discredit the other.
Trump, the Republican nominee, spent much of the evening explaining himself – over his temperament, treatment of women and minorities, business practices and readiness to be commander in chief, as well as over his long perpetuation of a falsehood about Barack Obama’s birthplace to delegitimize his presidency.
That led to exchanges like this:
“He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior, and the birther lie was a very hurtful one,” said Clinton, the Democratic nominee. “Barack Obama is a man of great dignity, and I could tell how much it bothered him and annoyed him that this was being touted and used against him.”
Trump, who earlier this month at last acknowledged Obama’s birth in Hawaii, replied by invoking Clinton’s 2008 rivalry with Obama: “When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn’t work.”
That’s hardly a response, but people heard what they wanted to hear:
Both candidates delivered performances likely to please and energize their core supporters. Clinton eviscerated Trump’s character and record while championing progressive ideals. Trump directly confronted Clinton over her email scandal and general trustworthiness. Less certain was how the debate might shape the perceptions of the slivers of the electorate still up for grabs, especially college-educated white women.
But it wasn’t an even match:
Clinton poured forth with policy details and practiced catchphrases – “Trumped-up trickle down” to describe his tax plan, for instance – and tried to sow doubts about the seriousness of Trump’s proposals. She seized on his comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin to suggest that Trump does not understand the global threats the country faces.
Where Clinton was measured in her attacks, Trump was a feisty and sometimes undisciplined aggressor. He regularly interrupted Clinton, as well as the moderator, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, and raised his voice. At times, Trump delivered rambling, heated and defensive answers.
In fact, he stopped making sense:
Clinton mocked Trump’s discussion of national security, suggesting he is uninformed and even unstable. “Whoo,” she said with a laugh, when Trump finished one oration about NATO and the Islamic State.
Earlier, Trump grew visibly frustrated by Clinton’s critique of his economic plan and declared: “Typical politician. All talk. No action. Sounds good. Doesn’t work. Never gonna happen. Our country is suffering because people like Secretary Clinton have made such bad decisions in terms of our jobs, in terms of what’s going on.”
But he didn’t defend his own plan. It hadn’t occurred to him that he’d have to. Preparation matters. He was winging it. Oops.
There’s much more detail, but the reviews are in, like this from Andrew Sullivan:
What can one say? I was afraid that Trump’s charisma and stage presence and salesmanship might outshine Hillary Clinton’s usually tepid and wonkish instincts. I feared that the facts wouldn’t matter; that a debate would not take place. And it is to Clinton’s great credit that she prepared, and he didn’t, and that she let him hang himself.
His utter lack of preparation; his doubling down on transparent lies; his foreign-policy recklessness; his racial animosity; his clear discomfort with the kind of exchange of views that is integral to liberal democracy; his instinctual belligerence – all these suggest someone who has long lived in a deferential bubble that has become filled with his own reality.
So there was a winner here:
Clinton was not great at times; her language was occasionally stilted; she missed some obvious moments to go in for the kill; but she was solid and reassuring and composed. I started tonight believing she needed a game-changer to alter the trajectory of this race. I may, of course, be wrong, trapped in my own confirmation bias and bubble – but I thought she did just that.
I’ve been a nervous wreck these past two weeks; my nerves are calmed now.
One of Sullivan’s readers added this:
A blinking, huffing manifestation of incoherent 21st-century white male rage – he is offended by the temerity of his public servant opponent while incredulous that he is clearly in the presence of a sane person who is in possession of facts and reason. Cheap country-club vulgarity. The only question is – is America seeing that too?
That question won’t be answered until the next round of polling, but Jonathan Chait saw this:
Before the first presidential debate, a conventional wisdom had formed that Donald Trump merely needed to appear “presidential,” which the campaign media had defined as “non-sociopathic.” He failed to clear that bar.
Chait sees that Trump started out well and then just faded:
Trump enjoyed his greatest success near the beginning of the debate, where he pounded home his nationalist-populist message on foreign trade and cornered Hillary Clinton, who has changed her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Clinton used the first portion of the debate to try to define her opponent as an advocate of conventional Republican trickle-down economics, but only managed to mention his support of tax cuts for the rich. She failed to bring up his increase in taxes on the middle class, and when Trump proposed to reduce regulations, she neglected to tie his promise to its unpopular specifics, like deregulating Wall Street, polluters, and opposing the minimum wage. It was possible for a while to imagine low-information voters buying his self-styled image as a truth-telling, nonpolitical outsider who would shake up the system.
And he was on a roll:
Trump managed to tell a number of lies without consequence. He insisted he had never called global warming a Chinese hoax, when that very claim is still up on his Twitter feed. He insisted crime has risen in New York, when it has fallen. He insisted that, contrary to his public support for the Iraq War, he had opposed it in private, inaccessible conversations with his lickspittle Sean Hannity – who, if called upon to do so, would probably vouchsafe that Trump indeed won the 1985 American League Most Valuable Player Award.
He was firing up his base, but that proved useless:
What did work for Clinton was sowing doubts about Trump’s character. She mentioned his $14 million loan from his father, and Trump aggravated the damage by calling the loan “small” without disputing the sum. He gave no coherent reason for why he could not release his tax returns. He admitted to failing to pay contractors, insisting they had all done poor work, an excuse hardly any person who had done work for hire could find plausible or acceptable. He defended his record of refusing housing accommodations to African-Americans by saying he had signed a consent decree with no admission of guilt, and then, years later, built a club in Palm Beach that did not exclude people by race. His defense of the charge of fomenting birtherism was a disaster. When he tried out his campaign line that he merely wanted to force Barack Obama to produce his birth certificate, Lester Holt noted that he continued to question its authenticity in each of the next four years, at one point sputtering, “Look, it’s all words.”
What did that mean? But he was proud that he, as America’s sheriff or something, had finally forced that uppity black guy to show his papers and prove he had a right to be in office, which is not a way to win over any who are undecided about Trump’s seeming racism, but it didn’t stop there:
The final exchange of the debate was the most devastating. Clinton lacerated Trump for his dehumanization of women – the kind of sexualization that offends social conservatives and social liberals alike. She brought up his abuse of one of his beauty-pageant contestants – noting, as an aside, his fondness for hanging around them – and that he called one contestant “Miss Piggy” and, because she is Latina, “Miss Housekeeper.” When Trump fell for the trap by demanding her name, Clinton supplied it: Alicia Machado, driving home the justifiable impression that Clinton sees her as a human being, unlike her opponent, who sees her as a piece of meat. His response consisted of whining that her campaign was spending money to attack him in advertisements.
No one likes a whiner, and Clinton won by contrast:
She maintained her composure and her dignity, something no Republican who confronted (or was bullied by) Trump in the primary debates managed to do. She had facts at her disposal, she apologized for her poor choice of email systems, and she conveyed that she is sane and competent. The contrast between an obviously and eminently qualified public servant and a ranting bully was as stark as any presidential debate in American history.
Josh Marshall agrees with that:
Clinton clearly went into this debate not looking for one or two big “Have you no decency” moments but rather looking to hit Trump with a rat-tat-tat series of taunts and jabs to see if she could get him to lose his cool and throw him off his game. It ended up happening a lot more quickly than I expected. No more than fifteen minutes in, he was getting visibly angry. And he stayed that way for the next hour plus.
From maybe a half hour into the debate Clinton had almost entirely seized the initiative. She was attacking while he responded, sometimes angrily, sometimes with new attacks and very often by doubling down on demonstrable falsehoods he’s been pilloried for, for months. At various moments he shuffled in and out of parts of his stump speech. But through most of the exchange he constantly interrupted Clinton, talked over her, denied claims she made which are easily validated…
Trump had no good answer on why he refused to release his taxes. And I think on live television, watched by maybe 100 million people, the fact that he’s lying about this was pretty obvious. On birtherism he tried to resurface the argument that Clinton was the real birther, just not as effective as he was. “I think I did a great job and a great service in getting the President to give his birth certificate.”
There was a winner here:
If we’re going to use boxing metaphors, my read was that for the last two thirds or so of the debate she had him almost constantly on the ropes. He was almost always reacting to her. He was swiping, swinging, sometimes nasty, sometimes getting in applause lines – but he was reacting to her almost throughout. Most of the time he was ranging between outbursts, denying claims, saying how many people loved him and are happy. At other times, he talked about how she’d spent more money on ads than he had, and how his poll numbers were going up.
Hardcore partisans care about this stuff. Not anyone else. It’s the stuff you grouse or brag about to your staff. Not the stuff you use in a debate. In the most basic sense, Trump spent most of the debate talking about himself and complaining about how he was being treated.
And he offered nothing new:
In this debate, Trump repeated virtually every lie he’s told through this campaign. He settled birtherism. He opposed the Iraq War. He can’t release his tax returns because of an audit. This time he said them in front of a hundred million people. Those things will each come up again now.
And he really didn’t prepare:
We heard a lot about Clinton preparing in depth for this debate. Trump, we’re told … well his advisors couldn’t get him to do any real debate prep. He had bull sessions with Christie and Giuliani and Gen. Flynn. I now find those claims quite believable. Her preparation and his cocky indifference to doing so showed in both cases. Clinton was poised and unflappable. She needled him, but not in a way that seemed nasty or petulant. She was poised throughout. It was equally clear that he had no clear strategy for what to do. For that among other reasons she took control of the debate within a half hour.
That may change things:
I don’t know that it will move the polls dramatically. But Trump was scattered, swaggering and stumbling. He lied a lot and repeatedly refused to answer big questions in a way that was fairly obvious and transparent. If you hadn’t heard him refuse to release his taxes before, how do you think it came off here? I think most people who had doubts about him won’t have those doubts assuaged. People not inclined to like him likely found him bullying and rude – and not even successful at it at that. I’m not sure this is any game changer. It simply confirms what a lot of people already know: Trump is not suited to be President. Clinton is competent, prepared and in this exchange buoyant and dynamic.
But that comes with a warning:
If I know anything about Trump he’ll feel wounded by this encounter. Low-stamina Hillary, almost a foot shorter than him, a weak women … well, she controlled him and owned the floor. Like we saw with Pastor Timmons and so many others who have hurt him, he’ll lash out.
He’ll lash out? That won’t help matters either, and Kevin Drum adds this:
I guess the only thing anyone cares about is who won. I’d give it to Hillary Clinton pretty easily. She handled her facts well, she spoke well, she didn’t get baited, she laughed at some of Trump’s more ridiculous statements, and she attacked him pretty effectively. “Just listen to what you heard,” she said when Trump tried to pretend that he did everyone a favor by forcing Obama to release his long-form birth certificate. I suspect that even Republicans in the audience laughed at that.
Trump, by contrast, was like a manic version of his usual manic self. He spoke too fast, he got practically red faced at times, he repeated the most obvious lies, and he could barely keep a coherent though together for more than a few seconds before wandering off to something else.
But then again, what do I know? Basically, Clinton acted like Clinton and Trump acted like Trump.
That’s what did him in of course:
If you like either one of them, you probably liked what you saw on the screen. And to Trump’s credit, he got his talking points across. Law and order. Politicians like Hillary are all talk, no action. Foreigners are stealing our jobs. I’m going to destroy ISIS big league.
But Trump’s howlers were just too numerous. He’s the son of a millionaire but said he started out with a “very small” amount of money. He claimed yet again that he absolutely opposed the war in Iraq – just ask Sean Hannity. He never said Clinton didn’t look presidential. NATO started a terror division because of him. He never said climate change was a hoax. Hillary’s people were responsible for birtherism, and he’s the guy who put an end to it. The IRS deliberately targets him, and only him, for audits. He never said he didn’t care if Japan built nukes. And then there was his bizarre riff about his pride over opening a club that doesn’t discriminate against African Americans…
Trump got called on all this, of course, and his strategy was simple: just deny everything. “Wrong,” he said repeatedly, talking obnoxiously over Clinton. Then, against all expectations, Lester Holt fact-checked Trump twice, but Trump just raised his voice and rode roughshod over him. Does this kind of simpleminded braying work? It all seemed like pretty obvious charlatanism to me, but maybe not to everyone else. Maybe they just came away thinking that Trump says one thing and Clinton says another, and who knows, really?
I have a little more faith in the American public than that, though. I think Trump did poorly, both in what he said and how he said it. He was manic about proving that he was the alpha male in the room, but I think he took it at least three or four notches too far. It was not a winning night for him.
The New York Times’ Gail Collins is a bit more pointed about that:
Trump lost. Really, I think we can work under the assumption that when a candidate is accused of cheering for the housing crisis, it’s not a good plan to reply: “That’s called business, by the way.”
There had been some speculation that all Trump needed to do was speak in complete sentences to beat expectations, and if that was the bar, the man did great. When Hillary Clinton suggested he might be withholding his federal returns because he never paid any taxes, he responded: “That makes me smart.” Complete sentence.
This was a disaster:
There’s something terrifying in the way Trump can’t admit error, even in a case where the incorrect statement in question has become world-famous. There are undoubtedly people in Chad who know that Trump supported the invasion of Iraq before it happened. But when it came up on Monday, he denied it once again, arguing that his much-quoted interview on “The Howard Stern Show” was something else entirely: “I said very lightly I don’t know maybe who knows. Essentially.”
Got that? No wonder he felt there was no need to practice for the debate.
And there’s this:
Is it fair to point out that Trump kept sniffling? All I know is, if Clinton did it we would never have heard the end of it. But forget nasal congestion. He made faces. Viewers had to sit all night in front of a split screen, watching one of the candidates grimacing, pouting and smirking. Over on her side, Clinton looked – pretty darned normal. Historically speaking, Americans tend to expect more than that of a debate winner. But we’re in new territory this election cycle.
It does make a difference. Do we want the rest of the world thinking of the United States as the Land of Weird Facial Contortions? Both of these candidates have a lot of baggage and Clinton got past her email burden by admitting she was wrong and saying she was sorry. Not the perfect apology, but it got her through the night.
Trump, for his part, could have anticipated that the business of calling women pigs, slobs and dogs would come up. The correct answer, as his advisers undoubtedly hinted, was to say he regretted it, and hoped he’d be a better example for his ten-year-old son. His actual response was to: 1) Claim that nobody likes Rosie O’Donnell; 2) Congratulate himself for not saying “something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family”; and 3) Point out that the polls are looking good.
It was kind of – wow.
Then there’s the central problem:
The night was totally about Trump. Clinton is not a very interesting speaker, and her failure to say anything stupid made her side of the debate all the more unexciting. People tuned in to see Trump and he didn’t disappoint. Not every politician would respond to a comment about how he got his start in business with $14 million in family money with: “My father gave me a very small loan.”
Remember when we made fun of Mitt Romney for his privileged background?
At least he didn’t walk out on stage, announce, as he had said before, that he has a very big wang, and then walk off stage and leave the building, assuming he had won the election – but he came close.
His folks will stick by him, of course. Hillary stood there, smug and smirking, because she knows the issues and makes sense, as if that matters. They hate her for that, but there aren’t quite enough of them to win the election in November. Trump’s advisors will now have to figure out a way to sell a shallow, uniformed, impulsive, easily-provoked, instinctively cruel and nasty man, to the American public, as their next president. Maybe the next debate will go better for him.