Who won? Who lost? Who cares?
By the admission of nearly all pundits and commentators, Hillary Clinton won last night’s presidential debate. She was prepared, perhaps overprepared. She knew her brief and had smart comebacks to everything that Trump was offering.
Most importantly, she showed stamina. Heaven knows what kind of juice she was on, but she seemed alert throughout. She did not have a coughing fit. Trump began strong, but he eventually seemed to fade, running out of ideas and replies. When you are accusing your opponent of lacking stamina, you should show some yourself.
Of course, Hillary also came across as smug and perhaps overly confident. She was the tough guy in the room and seemed to get the better of the pretender. But, she also hectored Trump and the nation, which made him look more sincere and, dare I say, authentic.
As I saw it, Hillary looked like she had been propped up behind her lectern. The split television screen made her look at tall as Trump, and since she is nearly foot shorter, it looked like her appearance had been doctored to make her look like something that she is not.
While Trump strikes many people as a repugnant human being, the truth of the matter is that Hillary is not a very attractive human being. Trump does not come across as sensitive and empathetic. But, Hillary does not either. You might well be willing to have a few beers with Trump. You would dread having a drink with Hillary. Anything to avoid the cackle.
For his part Trump sniffed his way through the encounter. Many people noticed it and asked about it. It’s going to become repeated over and over again on late night television, but one does not know how much that is going to affect too many people.
Of course, we will not know who really won or lost for the next couple of days. The financial markets seemed to believe that Hillary won, but they have been wrong on so many things that one hesitates to trust them. While some have suggested that Trump the bully was beaten up by a mere woman, the truth might be more subtle. Given that Hillary is putatively a woman, Trump could not attack her as aggressively as he attacked his male counterparts in the Republican nomination debates. And many people might have come away feeling that they would like to do what he could not do--to lay a figurative beating on Hillary. It’s the downside of empathy.
Besides, as numerous people have noted, Lester Holt, after beginning as a more impartial debate, started attacking Trump far more than he was attacking Clinton.
How do you, a white male, respond to a black moderator who implies that you are a racist? Thanks to Holt, the question lay there, a trap for Trump to fall into. Apparently, Holt is a Republican. Yet, he was carrying water for the Democrats in his attacks on Trump. He offered no such attacks on Clinton.
How do you, a white male, respond to a woman who calls you a racist liar and then declares that you are an inveterate sexist. Trump was probably wise to point out that even though he said some bad things about women, but Hillary's husband has done some very bad things to women. When he did, Hillary stood by him. Not only stood by him but set her mind to destroying the women that Bubba had abused and molested.
The larger question is: how fed up are the American people with political correctness? Does the charge of racism still put you beyond the political pale? Does the charge of sexism still make you look subhuman? It is not so obvious to me that these charges still work political magic.
After eight years of Barack Obama, after a rising tide of racial animosity in the country, after seeing cities burn, blacks murdered by other blacks… laying it all at the feet of white police officers and Donald Trump might not work in this election. I suspect that people are too smart to take the bait.
Trump’s reply, his effort to shift the focus to the living conditions in America’s inner cities, struck me as correct. Making it all about racism and white police officers misses the point entirely. It is a smokescreen designed to distract.
One notes that Hillary was talking down to Trump, calling him by his first name. And that Trump was addressing her—for the most part-- as Secretary Clinton. It was probably a good tactic. Given the evident double standard, if he had consistently called her by her first name he would have been excoriated in the press for sexism. By my count Trump called Lester Holt by his first name far more often than Hillary did. It's a sign of respect and cordiality.
As some have noted, Trump missed some excellent opportunities. When asked about cybersecurity he should have slammed Clinton for putting American security at serious risk by using a private email server. When asked about whether he was for or against the Iraq war, he should not have gotten so defensive but should have pointed out that he was a private citizen while Clinton was a senator who voted for the war. And he might have mentioned that she strongly opposed Bush’s surge. He should also have trashed her for suggesting that the Obama administration’s failure to negotiate a status of forces agreement before pulling out of Iraq was the fault of the Bush administration. He should have mentioned that Obama himself declared Iraq a great success when he surrendered. And he could certainly have mentioned Benghazi and Clinton’s lies to the parents of the young men she failed to protect there.
Nevertheless, Trump was simply not prepared. He did not know enough and certainly did not know as much as she did. And yet, he was correct to point out that her extensive knowledge is accompanied by a singular lack of achievements, even of some conspicuous failures.
He would be better able to make this case if he could show off some of his great successes in political offices. He has none, so he was reduced to defending his business record. Since it has very little to do with governing a nation, it will always be off the point.
When pressed by Holt and Clinton—who were teaming up against him—on his taxes, he had an excellent comeback: I’ll release my taxes when Hillary releases the 30,000 deleted emails. And yet, he should not just have mentioned it in passing. He should have pressed the point, and asked her more directly why she bleached her server to destroy incriminating evidence. While she was accusing him of having a nefarious reason for not releasing his taxes he should have been less defensive and should have pointed out the gross disparity between whatever lies hidden on his tax returns and the fact that she compromised national security.
There is, in effect, no comparison between the two.
One understood that he believed that he could get through it on vanity. He did not understand that talking for 45 minutes is not the same as talking for 8 minutes—which is the amount of time he spoke during the Republican candidate debates.
Of course, debating a woman changes the dynamic significantly. No one believes in double standards, but they still exist and if you come across as too strong when dealing with a woman, you will have a problem. Still, Trump could have prevailed and looked more presidential to the chattering class if he had showed a command of fact and information and policy. He did not. It was a missed opportunity.
Still and all, Trump has more than bluster going for him. He sounds like he actually wants to do things for America. Hillary sounds like she has a raft of detailed plans. Having plans and implementing them are not the same thing. One suspects that Hillary will have a great deal of difficulty making deals internationally and even with Congress.
Writing on Powerline John Hinderaker tries to separate the question of who won the debate from the question of how it will change voters’ minds. He writes:
This is why I don’t think the evening was a bad one for Trump: most undecided voters will have seen Hillary as the embodiment of the political class. Smug, smirking, always ready with a torrent of words that can’t quite obscure the fact that to the extent she herself has wielded power, she has been a failure. Hillary Clinton is a walking exemplar of the political class that got us where we are now. A viewer who thinks America is doing great, our politicians are terrific, things have been going well in recent years and we need more of the same will be motivated to vote for Hillary.
Trump had a bad night. Clearly, he came in second. Anyone who supported Trump because they believed he would be great in a debate against Hillary should start asking how they got it so wrong.
And yet, the polls might tell a different story. Trump still has one trump card: he is running against someone that no one really likes, someone who is not likable enough. It may be that, in doing well in the debate, in being smug and cutesy, Hilary might have turned a lot of voters off.
In any other election Trump would have been counted out by now. In this election, he seems still to have a good chance.