If Hillary Clinton — and panicky liberals across America — envisioned an ideal debate, I think it would have looked a lot like what we saw Monday night. The terrain was Donald Trump’s taxes, Donald Trump’s birtherism, Donald Trump’s Iraq War position(s), and Donald Trump’s nuclear policy. “Donald,” as Clinton insisted on calling him, set off into a labyrinth on each issue. On the split screen, Clinton smiled a contented smile, seeming to know that Trump was unloading much of her oppo research for her. Clinton won the first presidential debate on substance, which was almost a guarantee, and also on theatrics, which was anything but.
The debate scoring, it was said, was going to be skewed based on the abilities and genders of the candidates. Trump could bluster, insult — after all, what else did anyone expect? Clinton was graded on a steeper and weirder curve. “Sometimes packs too many facts into answers,” The New York Times noted — which hardly seems like a fault.
But Rich Lowry made a different point in a Politico column. Trump’s advantage, he argued, is actually the one typically enjoyed by any “change” candidate. Clinton had to defend the long, complex records of Barack Obama (i.e., the Iran deal) and her husband (NAFTA, the notorious crime bill). Trump could simply feint at deficiencies in all these things — call them “disasters.” Trump could put forward a tough-to-rebut idea that everything is going to hell and that we need a tough guy to save the planet.
As CNN’s Jake Tapper noted during the debate’s opening segment, which focused on employment, Trump did a fairly good job on this titled terrain, reprising his populist spiel that “our jobs are are fleeing the country.” (He couldn’t say what he’d do to get them back, despite being asked twice by moderator Lester Holt.) He accused Clinton of aping his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Clinton answered by attacking Trump’s tax policy, which she called “Trumped up trickle-down” — a phrase that should probably be stuffed into Al Gore’s lock box.
But Clinton began to take command in the second segment, which focused on tax policy. After Holt asked Trump about refusing to release his tax returns, Clinton unloaded an arsenal of hypotheticals: “Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is. … Maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. … Maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes. … Zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health. … There’s something he’s hiding.”
She then noted her father Hugh’s career as a textile supplier to charge that Trump often stiffed the workers he hired. “I’m certainly relieved that my late father never did business with you,” she said.
On crime, Trump led with a bumper sticker: “Secretary Clinton doesn’t want to use a couple of words, and that’s law and order.” (It was a cousin of the old GOP riff that Obama doesn’t want to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”) As Nixon did, Trump charged that the inner cities are going to hell — and that he, rather absurdly, cared more about minorities than Clinton.
Here, you could see Clinton’s superior preparation. It wasn’t just that she studied Trump’s policy positions. She studied Trump’s now-familiar jujitsu, where he takes a traditionally left-leaning position (against free trade, for minority outreach) and claims it as his own.
So when Trump called the inner cities a Grand Guignol of murder and mayhem, Clinton accused him of painting a “dire, negative picture” of the black community, effectively recapturing the moral high ground. Trump looked impressed.
The Times reported that Trump’s debate preparation was essentially no preparation. It showed when he ignored or forgot Holt’s questions, even when they were appealing questions. It was Clinton who moved easily between talking points, as if she were reaching into her golf bag, selecting driver after driver, and whacking Trump on the head with them.
In the portion of the debate on national security, Clinton used a single answer to pivot from Trump’s support for the Iraq War (which Trump comically denies) to Trump’s support for intervention in Libya (ditto). Further, Trump’s failure to answer Holt’s initial question — which was about protecting the United States from terror, a good subject for him — allowed Clinton to grandstand on the issue. And just for good measure, Clinton pulled out a sand wedge and bopped Trump over his proposed Muslim immigration ban.
Clinton said, “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
One of the bizarre rites of the political press is that contempt for one’s opponent, even if they’re contemptible, is something a candidate should be punished for. The Times made this point accidentally on Sunday when it rehashed Gore’s sighing in a 2000 debate against George W. Bush — as if, with 16 years of hindsight, the sighs were what ought to lead the story. Tonight, Clinton was determined to win the body-language battle, no matter how crackers it is. She smiled constantly, lifting her chin at a high angle. She never got agitated or grimaced. And when Trump unloaded one particularly gnarly hairball, she said, “Woo. O-kay.”
Clinton also came in determined to be very, very aggressive, to show that Trump couldn’t push her around. During the debate’s final leg, when he seemed to sense he was losing, Trump insisted on tacking on blustering postscripts to several questions. Holt, who was very good, often allowed it, so that the moderator didn’t hijack the debate. But it was Clinton who snuck in a final bonus answer, and used it to bring up Trump’s misogyny. When she mentioned a woman Trump had insulted, Trump could only ask, “Where did you find her?”
As with any Trump debate, there were a few surreal moments. There was his dance around what to call Clinton: “Secretary Clinton? Yes? Is that OK? Good. Good. I want you to be very happy.” It was a strange olive branch — he later forgot and called her “Hillary.” After renouncing birtherism, Trump still called Obama “your president.” Moreover, Trump’s hits on Clinton seemed to emerge from the ’90s catalog as much as from the ’00s: He mentioned NAFTA and Clinton’s old reference to “superpredators.” Somewhere, Ralph Nader was smiling.
As with Dubya, Trump does better when he can move the debate out of the thickets of policy detail and into big, loopy overstatement. “Gee,” people think, “there is stuff wrong with America, so why not go with the guy who thinks big?” Tonight, Trump didn’t get asked about immigration, which figures to play to his sloganeering strengths.
But the problem with not preparing for a debate is that you don’t have good slogans. Trump had no pithy line to explain his Iraq War position, so Holt had to ask him about it three different times. (Trump ended by pleading with the press to call Fox’s Sean Hannity, who could explain everything.) But when Trump gave Clinton the predictable shot about her “stamina,” she was ready with a line about traveling to 112 countries as secretary of state — which was both a good comeback and a reminder of her major asset: her experience. There’s nothing to a line like that but simple preparation.
More surprisingly, Trump didn’t prepare a line about the birther lies that he’d reintroduced into the campaign more than a week ago. If Trump is talking about birtherism in a presidential debate, he’s losing. If Trump is talking about it for more than 20 seconds, he’s really losing.
After the debate, Trump was spinning for himself. “Did you take Hillary Clinton’s bait?” a CNN reporter asked.
“No, I was very proud of the fact that I was able to get [Obama] to put up his birth certificate,” Trump said. At which point, he was taking the bait again — and Clinton was winning.