Donald Trump’s performance in the first presidential debate Monday night left many commentators perplexed. He was sufficiently ill-prepared, dishonest, petulant, and finally out of gas to have sunk a normal candidate in a normal year. He showed us the lazy and arrogant Trump, Trump the bully, the Trump of the short attention span. Clinton, on the other hand, was polished and prepared—but not, as some of her followers had feared, over-prepared. She was unrattleable. Aware when Trump was speaking that the camera was trained on her as well, she kept her facial expressions under control and mainly looked bemused. When she was speaking, he made faces of scorn and irritation; and he often interrupted her and even talked over the moderator, Lester Holt, which isn’t done. Some commentators withheld judgment at first about how the debate went over with the public, even though they believed that Trump had done very badly, because so many of them had gotten it wrong in the primary debates: most press observers thought he’d behaved horribly in the South Carolina debate but then he won South Carolina by a large margin. It should have been evident, though, that the voters in the general election aren’t like the ones in the Republican primaries—and that’s Trump’s challenge now.
Trump did badly Monday night with focus groups of undecided voters in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, and a poll released Wednesday by Politico/Morning Consult showed Clinton gaining three points and Trump losing one—just what she needs. In an NBC/SurveyMonkey poll, 52 percent of respondents said that Clinton had won the debate, compared to just 21 percent for Trump. As the week went on, new polls were consistently showing gains for Clinton, putting her ahead of Trump in national measurements by from two to seven points. This doesn’t tell us what the effect was on the swing states; though the trends in those states would tend to reflect what’s happening at the national level.
In the first half hour (when he was relatively coherent), Trump pitched his comments to his supporters in the rust belt, slamming Clinton’s (and her husband’s) record on free trade agreements and the moving of plants and therefore jobs overseas. As usual, he went on some faulty assumptions—US jobs aren’t fleeing overseas to the extent he says—and hazy solutions. Its highly unlikely, to say the least, that existing trade agreements can be renegotiated to make them more favorable to the United States. Trade plus immigration have been the principal rationales of his campaign from the beginning, but the strong support of blue-collar white men without college degrees isn’t sufficient to get him elected; Trump has to appeal to women, but it’s hard to see what he said in the debate that would cause them to want to support him. He did get Clinton somewhat on the defensive on trade, her opposition to trade agreements having come lately. Perhaps Trump’s most effective line, repeated from time to time throughout the debate, was, Clinton had been in government for thirty years so how come she didn’t get the things done that she’s now advocating? The line made no literal sense but it served to underscore one of his main attractions to voters, that she’s the insider and he represents change.
While Trump was clearly winging it after the beginning, Clinton had an effective plan that she executed flawlessly. Her strategy was based on her belief that she could defeat Trump in the election on the basis of his character and personality. Her aides said that the goal was to try to jack up the enthusiasm of her supporters and also reach out to uncommitted suburban women and millennials who have yet to back her. First she unnerved Trump by questioning his business prowess (Trump, like many braggarts, has a notoriously thin skin), pointing out that his father had loaned him $14 million to start his own business. Trump repeated that he’d been given a “small loan.” Then she went at the way he’d “stiffed” small business people whom he’d contracted to work on his buildings, his “long record of engaging in racist behavior,” and his derogation of women. She told the stories of real people whom he’d mistreated.
To be frank, Trump didn’t seem very smart in the way he handled the debate. He walked into every trap that Clinton set for him. Perhaps he’s so unself-aware that he thought he was doing just fine. He let Clinton lead him into insulting women once again—out of nowhere he denigrated Rosie O’Donnell, whom he’d already insulted for no apparent reason in the first debate in the primaries. But the event that was to live on after debate was Clinton’s summoning up the story of twenty years ago when Trump—who, Clinton made a point of saying, liked to sponsor and hang around beauty pageants—had insulted Miss Universe, Alicia Machado (“Donald, she has a name”), for having gained weight after the pageant, calling her “Miss Piggy” and also “Miss Housekeeping”—an apparent reference to the fact that she’s Latina (from Venezuela).
Trump’s reaction was puzzlement—“Where did you find that?” But, as is his wont, Trump made things worse for himself, just as he’d done with the Khans, the Muslim parents of a US army captain killed in Iraq, and with Judge Gonzalo Curiel, an American of Mexican heritage, by going further. The next morning on Fox and Friends, he attacked Machado again, saying she’d gained “a massive amount of weight” and had been “the worst contestant” ever, “a real problem.” He thereupon invited the wrath of women everywhere who’d ever had weight problems and probably their parents, as well. And then there are the Hispanics, who can’t have liked this. As the Khans did, Machado, who is now an American citizen, is making the rounds of the talk shows.
Trump not only walked into traps; he gave the Clinton campaign fresh material. His interpolations as Clinton made some charges would be particularly useful. The Clinton campaign plans to hammer Trump over his unintended admission that he hadn’t paid any taxes last year by butting in with the comment that that was “smart”; and that his cheering on the impending housing crisis in 2008 was “business.” As for Clinton’s mention that she’d invited to the debate the architect of a clubhouse on one of his golf courses who hadn’t been paid, Trump employed the standard excuse, “Maybe he didn’t do a good job.”
Clinton spoke to millennials and suburban women when she charged that Trump had called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese. (Trump lied in denying that he’d done that.) To African-Americans Clinton dwelt on the implications of Trump using the “racist” charge about Obama’s birth to get his start in national politics—and then pressing this “birther” myth for five years. Trump’s abrupt concession on September 16 that “President Obama was born in the United States” did him little good. Trump’s turnabout, which his aides had urged him to take care of before the debate, in a press conference during which he showed off his new hotel in Washington, only reminded people how extensively he’d pushed the baseless rumor to delegitimize the first black president, which is understood to have very much bothered the usually unflappable Obama. Trump’s lie about Clinton having started the birther rumor was the last straw for a press corps already frustrated by Trump’s constant lying. It was in articles about this press conference that the word “lie” began to appear, and in time major outlets—The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, and The Los Angeles Times—started to publish running accounts of Trump’s lies. Trump bragged during and after the debate that he’d forced Obama to release his birth certificate; at the time Trump had questioned whether what Obama released was real. Perhaps Clinton’s single most effective line in the debate—clearly a rehearsed one—was, “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”
In the debate Trump showed once again that he doesn’t understand the purpose and benefits of our international alliances or nuclear policy or how the Federal Reserve works. But, typically, Trump was incapable of admitting that he hadn’t done such a good job—he claimed victory—and had to offload the blame on others.
In his call-in on Fox and Friends, Trump complained that his mic hadn’t worked well and was scratchy—perhaps a conspiracy against him. He accused Holt, the moderator, of asking him the harder questions. Trump was at his smarmiest in suggesting toward the end of the debate that he was going to say something “extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, I can’t do it.” Afterward, in comments in the “spin room” and wherever he could the next day, he was more explicit, saying that he’d held back from bringing up Bill Clinton’s past affairs because Chelsea, a friend of Ivanka’s, was in the hall. (Though presumably Chelsea would have heard it on television had she been elsewhere.) Like a chorus, Trump’s surrogates, RNC chairman Reince Priebus and Rudy Giuliani, praised him for being so restrained about bringing up a very sensitive matter, with Giuliani, seemingly Trump’s id, going further in talking about Bill’s affairs, mentioning Monica Lewinsky—if anyone needed reminding. After the debate and also on Morning Joe the next day campaign manager Kellyanne Conway praised Trump’s saintly restraint. On Wednesday, Trump’s son Eric said his father had shown “courage” in not bringing up Bill Clinton’s sex life. How all this would help Trump with undecided voters was unclear.
Among the few actual substantive arguments between Clinton and Trump was one over stop-and-frisk policing, in particular in New York. The tactic had been instituted by Giuliani during his tenure as New York mayor and Giuliani had convinced Trump to back it. But a federal judge had ruled that the process amounted to racial profiling and while Giuliani’s successor, Mike Bloomberg, appealed the ruling, Bill de Blasio dropped it when he came into the mayoralty. De Blasio maintains that after the practice was stopped violent crime in New York continued to decrease.
In the commentary after the debate, to mask how terribly Trump had come off—unlike anything I’d ever seen in six decades of presidential debates—Conway raised the bar by saying that Clinton had failed to knock him out. It wasn’t clear how this was supposed to happen: Trump throwing up his hands and saying “I give up?” The boxing metaphor for debates is one of the things wrong about them. My note to self afterward was to never assume what Trump will do on a major occasion. During the Republican convention I was certain that Trump would act like a statesman when he delivered his acceptance speech and I was sure that in the first debate he would be low-key, “presidential,” and even a bit sensitive toward others. Never mind. He was himself and that’s just as well. The public saw the real Trump. Anyway, is he a good enough actor and sufficiently disciplined that he can play “presidential”?
The debate took place against the backdrop of an essentially tied presidential race, with the press having declared that Trump had the “momentum.” By the third week of September, battleground states where Clinton had been seen as safely ahead—Colorado, Pennsylvania—were suddenly tied. (Ohio was tilting toward Trump.) The Clinton campaign had greatly outspent Trump on advertising, almost all of it on ads challenging Trump’s character and fitness to be president. During August, confident that Clinton would carry Virginia and Colorado, her campaign ceased advertising in those states. The dead heat in Pennsylvania was particularly worrisome to the Clinton camp since they had counted on carrying the state in order to prevent Trump from reaching 270 electoral votes; the shift in Colorado was alarming because voters there largely fit the profile of Clinton supporters: younger, more educated, and a high percentage of them Hispanics. Clinton’s performance on Monday brought considerable relief to her supporters.
Clinton’s problem is that she hasn’t been attracting new followers in large numbers and many of those she already has have been lukewarm. Low turnout in November could be a big problem for her. Something about Hillary Clinton just doesn’t sell. While she’s widely accused of being an inveterate liar, I’ve said before that her lies in this election have been about the “damn spot” of her campaign—the server. Her behavior over the server reminded people of her evasiveness in her years as First Lady. Clinton can be cold and off-putting, but she can also be very warm; of late she’s been much less packaged and more spontaneous. But first impressions tend to stick. One’s reaction to her depends on which Hillary one knows. (I’ve met both over the years.) There’s no doubt that the “tough woman” puts some people off, but what else do they want in a president?
Clinton also has a couple of political problems that aren’t her fault. After Bernie Sanders spent months during the primaries attacking her as a tool of Wall Street and part of a corrupt system, he has yet to convince a great many of his followers to support her. (Now Trump is picking up Sanders’s sly demand that she release the transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs: Sanders knew full well that anyone who gives a speech to a group—no matter what it’s paying—is likely to flatter them at the outset; Sanders’s demand encouraged the naïve thought that a politician would cut a deal with a group in a speech attended by numerous people.) Sanders’s recent appearances on Clinton’s behalf—he did an event with her Wednesday in New Hampshire to talk about the plan she adapted from his of offering free public college education and lowering student debt—will test whether he can persuade many of them to back her. In the end, Sanders and Clinton come from different political places so it’s not at all clear that he can. Sanders had a vision, while, puzzlingly, Clinton has yet to offer one. Her campaign’s slogan, “Stronger Together,” isn’t exactly a vision. But she badly needs a hefty portion of the millennials who are Sanders’s major constituency.
A second problem is that Clinton is running as the nominee of the party that’s controlled the White House for eight years; voters in this country have a pattern of electing the other party after two terms—a pattern even more pronounced when the incumbent is a Democrat. And there’s an unknown factor that should be mentioned: no one can tell now how many blacks and Hispanics, as well as elderly people and students, will be blocked from casting a ballot by the voter ID laws that are still popular in Republican-governed states.
A further question is how much staying power the third-party candidates—Gary Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, and Jill Stein, of the Green Party—will have. While Stein is but a blip, scoring at most three points in important states, Johnson, with the more well-known Bill Weld as his running mate, is on the ballot in all fifty states and could make the difference in such states as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Johnson is known as a bit of an odd duck. His stunning appearance on Morning Joe, when he was asked what, as president, he would do about Aleppo and he drew a blank, was just one sign of an unserious figure whose real role is to muck up the presidential race. When confronted on Meet the Press with the fact that he couldn’t win but could affect the outcome, he replied with insouciance, “Some parties need wrecking.”
The reckless egotism that leads some people to put themselves in a position to distort the outcome of a presidential race—as Ralph Nader did in 2000—is quite remarkable if not very admirable. What’s most disturbing is that by offering the illusion that they can affect policy, which they’re not strong enough to do, they can draw younger people into a hopeless crusade and end in increasing their cynicism. According to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, over a third of voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine said that they’d vote for Johnson or Stein, and 10 percent said that if the choice was only Clinton or Trump they wouldn’t vote. This was twice as many as in any other age group. It’s widely thought that Johnson’s numbers will go down as people get closer to actually casting a vote and realize that they could be helping elect Trump. Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election, one of the most fateful ones in our history—perhaps to be eclipsed by the current one. In a Times account, several millennial voters told reporters they were too young to remember Nader.
The week leading up to the debate showed how issues can whang into an election campaign, dominate the discussion and coverage for a few days—until the next one occurs. First we had, on September 17, the bombings and attempts at more of them in New York City and New Jersey. Terrorism! And on the eve of the UN General Assembly in Manhattan, in the communications capital of the world. And then a few days later, this was supplanted by the police shootings of black men under ambiguous circumstances in Tulsa and Charlotte. A third such shooting occurred on Wednesday, in San Diego.
The assumption—wrong in the event—that Trump would go low-key in the debate was encouraged by his response to the Tulsa shooting of a black man with his hands up. Trump addressed this in a soft voice and with evident sympathy for the victim. But the fabulist in him took it further, offering a character assessment of a man he didn’t know. “He looked like a really good man.” This appeared to be the first sign of what promised to be, or so we were given to think, the Great Softening. Unless one counts Trump’s generic statement in August that he “regretted” if he’d said the wrong words (about whomever) and had “caused personal pain” (to whomever). Trump’s sudden turn, such as it was, was believed to have come especially at the urging of Kellyanne Conway, whose mission was to make him more acceptable to white women. (No one—despite his rhetoric, not even Trump—expects him to pick up the votes of minorities in significant numbers.)
But while Tulsa produced an unaccustomed softness in Trump, the demonstrations in reaction to the Charlotte shooting produced his more bombastic side, the one that appeals to white supremacists. In his comments about Charlotte, Trump was summoning up his Nixon “law and order” routine, first introduced last summer by his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a major theme at the Republican convention.
Claiming without evidence that the Charlotte demonstrators were using drugs, he blamed the riots on Obama and Clinton. Obama had shown “weakness,” Trump said, while Clinton “shared directly in the responsibility for the unrest” by criticizing the police. Criticism of law enforcement, actual or implied, had been a divisive point in our politics almost from the outset of the Obama presidency, when the president took the police in Cambridge, Massachusetts to task for arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for trying to enter his own house. Ever since, Obama has trod carefully in matters involving the police and blacks; even when he attended the memorial for five Dallas police shot by a lone gunner, he was criticized by some for his mention of blacks murdered by police and his reference to slavery.
Now the first presidential debate dominates the discussion; it’s often the case that the aftermath is as important as the debate itself but this time the result wasn’t ambiguous. Only Trump, being Trump, and a few flunkies declared outright victory. (Inexplicably, Conway had built up expectations before the debate, calling him “the Babe Ruth of debaters.”) Trump’s show on Monday night put the lie to how deft he’d been in dispatching sixteen skilled politicians in the primaries.
Trump’s closest aides and advisors know that they have a problem. Leading congressional Republicans hid out from the press rather than comment on his handling of the debate. The word has gone out from the Trump camp that the next one will be different. There won’t be some dozen people briefing him, as was the case this time; Roger Ailes, who couldn’t get Trump to rehearse the situation by standing at a podium and responding to someone playing Clinton, will take a more commanding part, though the next “debate” is in the form of a town hall. But will Trump’s attention span suddenly grow? Could he somehow come across as well informed? His camp agreed that in the first debate he let some big subjects go by—he didn’t know enough to bring something up even if he hadn’t been asked about it. But the efficacy of the subjects they listed is questionable: Benghazi (which seven congressional committees had investigated and come up empty); the email server (the public seems tapped out on that subject); Obamacare (more promising). If Trump really thinks that he’ll be greatly aided by bringing up Bill Clinton’s affairs, as he says he intends to, well, what can one say?
By rights the results of a debate—one event lasting about an hour and a half—shouldn’t supplant months of campaigning by the candidates. Small and sometimes inconsequential things that happen in this kind of forum can lead to large conclusions: Richard Nixon’s perspiring; Michael Dukakis’s mechanical response to a hypothetical question positing that his wife had been raped and murdered; George H. W. Bush’s looking at his watch (perhaps he just wanted to know how much time was left to make certain points); Al Gore’s sighs; Reagan’s canned one-liners (“There you go again”). But what was different about the first debate of this election, with an audience of eighty-five million—the most-watched presidential debate ever—is that it was more revealing about character and characteristics of the two nominees than any debate in modern history.
Part of Elizabeth Drew’s continuing series on the 2016 election.