First Clinton-Trump Debate Confirms Low Expectations
Trump had a much lower bar than Clinton going in. Neither cleared it.
I went into last night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with low expectations. I fully expected Trump to be rude, dishonest, and free of substance and Clinton to be substantive but awkward. Because the general public and the mass media had similar expectations, Trump could win if he simply demonstrated that he could plausibly be president while Clinton could win only if she suddenly became likeable after a quarter century of life on the national stage. Neither crossed the bar.
The early polling shows the public believing Clinton outperformed Trump. While I don’t see how anyone could think otherwise—she was prepared and drilled down on policy while he winged it—I’m not sure she won in the sense of motivating many people who aren’t hardcore Democrats to vote for her. Given that we’re five weeks out from the election and she holds a narrow lead, that’s not at a bad outcome for her. But any of the elected presidents in my memory would have scored more points than she did against such an awful opponent.
Below, I’m going to focus on the optics of the debate. I’ll address some substantive issues in future posts. But substance isn’t going to decide this election; it seldom decides elections. If it did, we could just compare resumes and white papers and skip the debates.
While I only followed social media tangentially while watching and occasionally Tweeting the debate, those in my Twitter and Facebook feeds seemed annoyed at moderator Lester Holt. Certainly, he didn’t do a great job of reining in Trump’s constant interruptions and their both routinely going past the time limit. But I prefer his gentle style to the obnoxiousness of a Candy Crowley or Martha Ravitz, both of whom seemed to think they were the stars of the show last cycle. As he noted at the outset, “I am honored to have this role, but this evening belongs to the candidates and, just as important, to the American people.”
My frustration with Holt was in the question selection. He pledged, “We are going to focus on many of the issues that voters tell us are most important, and we’re going to press for specifics.” But he mostly asked questions that would have been appropriate for a mayoral contest, not an election for the next commander-in-chief. And, of course, nobody was going to get any specifics out of Trump.
His lead-off to 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 works?” was not atypical of presidential debate questions but it’s a rather silly one all the same. Presidents don’t create jobs. Regardless, it elicited a reasonable byplay between the two, with Clinton talking about investing in infrastructure—a legitimate national response—and encouraging profit sharing and Trump talking about losing jobs overseas. It gave Clinton an opportunity for her first planned zinger of the evening about “Trumped-up Trickle Down,” which I thought fell flat.
Little in that long back-and-forth surprised me. Many in my social media feed seemed to think Trump stepped on it here:
CLINTON: Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis. He said, back in 2006, “Gee, I hope it does collapse, because then I can go in and buy some and make some money.” Well, it did collapse.
TRUMP: That’s called business, by the way.
I haven’t the foggiest how the American public is going to react to anything at this stage in the campaign but that actually struck me as a reasonable point. He made variations of it multiple times during the night: businessmen play by the rules of the game on such things as taxes and bankruptcy. And, to the extent he had any substantive proposals, he seemed to be calling for changing some of those rules, especially with regard to outsourcing jobs overseas, re-importing those goods, and the like.
While some, including my colleague Steven Taylor, seemed to think Trump’s constant interruptions would hurt him, I actually thought it helped him in the early going. He seemed in control of the debate and wasn’t as awful as I thought he’d be.
In the second half of the night, though, Clinton clearly outperformed Trump. Partly, that’s because 90 minutes of repeating vague platitudes wears thin. Partly, though, it’s because Holt’s question selection was stilted. Several of them were directly aimed at forcing Trump to defend past statements:
- HOLT: Mr. Trump, we’re talking about the burden that Americans have to pay, yet you have not released your tax returns.
- HOLT: Mr. Trump, for five years, you perpetuated a false claim that the nation’s first black president was not a natural-born citizen. You questioned his legitimacy. In the last couple of weeks, you acknowledged what most Americans have accepted for years: The president was born in the United States. Can you tell us what took you so long?
- HOLT: Mr. Trump, this year Secretary Clinton became the first woman nominated for president by a major party. Earlier this month, you said she doesn’t have, quote, “a presidential look.” She’s standing here right now. What did you mean by that?
- HOLT: One of you will not win this election. So my final question to you tonight, are you willing to accept the outcome as the will of the voters?
Now, all of those are fair questions. For a sit-down interview with the candidate. But, in a presidential debate, they’re highly problematic. Not only do they have nothing to do with the issues most important to the voters but they tilt the playing field, putting Trump on the defensive while giving Clinton a free pass to attack Trump.
In the first instance, Trump managed to turn the spotlight back on Clinton, repeating his claim that “I will release my tax returns — against my lawyer’s wishes — when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release.” This drew the first major outburst from the studio audience.
To his credit, Holt did follow up on this with Clinton later. But there were zero comparable start-off questions aimed at Clinton. As a result, Trump was constantly on the defensive and Clinton able to attack him. As Karen Tumulty notes, there were plenty of instances where “Trump’s famously thin skin” showed during this stretch. But that was more a function of stacked moderation than Clinton’s skill as a debater.