Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Clinton Wins Debate as Trump Throws a Temperament Tantrum
Donald Trump had just completed an animated defense of his self-professed role as the de facto leader of the “birther” movement. When the moderator gave the floor to Hillary Clinton, she simply turned to camera and said, “Just listen to what you heard.” Though not grammatically perfect, the point was made. The best way to beat Donald Trump is to get out of the way and let him do it for you.
Hillary Clinton won the debate, largely because the real Donald Trump showed up. Hillary was poised, reasoned, and in command – of the stage, and of her facts. In the end, she made the most effective case for her candidacy by simply standing in measured counterpoint to Trump’s bombast, braggadocio, belligerence, and brazen B.S.
It was the big question during the painfully long run-up to the debate: “which” Donald Trump would show up? The blustery blowhard who insulted his way to the Republican nomination, or the well-handled “Presidential” version who obediently reads from teleprompters and feigns respect for the President of Mexico for the duration of a photo op. Which one showed up? The real one.
The real Donald Trump is loud, self-involved, rude, insulting, and – above all – refuses to back down on even his most toxic positions. Indeed, when challenged, he reflexively and defiantly amps-up his stances, adding new and ever more flagrant dimensions, some seeming thoroughly spontaneous. On this evening, Trump would defend his long-held leadership on the birtherism movement by adding the entirely new outrage that Barack Obama should actually be grateful that the Donald had interceded to settle the matter once and for all.
Yet quite apart from the matters of substance and content is the time-tested truth that television is primarily a visual medium. People react emotionally to what they see on the screen as much as to the specific words, insight, and command of detail the candidates display. Trump started well when the questions focused on the domestic economy, and he appeared to be on track for a strong evening as he castigated the Democrats on trade policy. But as the topics moved to social issues and national security, Trump became wobbly, defensive, and unfocused. Over the course of the debate, a distinct visual message emerged that Trump was the candidate who was visually less in control. He incessantly interrupted Clinton, and repeatedly talked over the moderator, Lester Holt of NBC. Through the constant split screen, the viewing audience could watch every moment as Trump behaved childishly while his opponent spoke. Peevish, thin-skinned, and impetuous, Trump was determined to rebut every criticism and challenge every slight. As a result, he meandered from topic to topic following a train of logic not readily evident to the viewer, all while presenting a visual image not unlike Bogart’s Queeg, fingering his marbles while testifying about strawberries. If you watched this debate with the sound turned off, you wouldn’t let Donald Trump run your local P.T.A.
Irony inflicts its deepest wounds on those who fail to grasp when they are in its spell. Donald Trump chose to become most animated, most vociferous, and most contentious on the very topic of asserting the perfection of his temperament. As the split screen revealed a placid, aloof, statesmanlike Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s full throttle temperament tantrum became the visual metaphor for the evening.
The instant polls were not kind to Trump: a CNN poll had the debate as a 62 to 27 win for Clinton. It’s important to note, however, that CNN’s poll was limited to people who had watched the debate. I suspect that a healthy portion of Trump’s basket of deplorables opted for re-runs of Duck Dynasty rather than risk witnessing the spectacle of their candidate being chick-filleted.
Further, 18 out of the 20 undecided voters in CNN’s studio focus group said that Clinton won. A quick glance at FOX.com was perhaps even more telling: one of their analysts called it for Clinton, another postured that it was a “draw.” When you show up at work every day to prosecute a specific political point-of-view, and all you can muster is the claim of a “draw,” you look a lot like the boxer retreating to his corner with the whimper of “no mas.”
Here were the exchanges in which the candidates appeared to draw blood. While Donald Trump came out of the box very aggressively on trade, Hillary Clinton ran the table for the remainder of the evening.
1. Trade: Donald Trump got off to a very good start in the debate. He came out swinging on the contention that U.S. industry had been suffocated by bad trade agreements, and all but put Hillary Clinton in a hammerlock for her support of NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Clinton was rattled and came dangerously close to a Kerry-esque “I was for it before I was against it.” You could practically hear her autopilot shouting “Stall! Stall! You are losing airspeed!” She made a creditable pivot, castigating Trump’s solutions as just so much warmed over trickle-down economics, and neatly tying those policies to the global economic meltdown of George Dubya Bush. But on balance, round one went to Trump.
2. Trump’s Tax Return: Lester Holt introduced the topic of Trump’s tax return, and it was clear that Trump hoped to skate over this with his standard line about being unable to act while his taxes were under audit. Clinton and Holt were at the ready. She began by listing all the nefarious reasons why Trump might be hiding something, and then neatly expanded the issue, noting that the tax return issue gets to Trump’s core credential for running for President… his business acumen. She spoke of meeting people who had been stiffed by Trump, and personalized the issue by noting that her own father ran the type of small business that Trump failed to pay. Trump then oddly committed unforced errors, essentially conceding that there was truth to her accusation but claiming that he did not pay because the work had not been done well. He defending his bankruptcies as simply taking advantage of the laws of the country. He said that paying very little income tax was “smart.” By the time the questioning was over, Clinton had put a series of dents in Trump’s allegations of business genius. The tax returns are toxic for Trump, and he brought nothing new to his defense. It was an easy win for Clinton.
3. Race: Lester Holt teed up the issue of the dramatically increased racial tension in the United States, yet seemed to pull his punch in merely asking the candidates to comment on the broad and general question “how do you heal the divide?” Hillary Clinton chose her words carefully to navigate the need to avoid hammering blame on the police while simultaneously expressing sympathy for the fears and outrage felt in the African American community with each new instance of unjustifiable violence caught on cell phone video. Donald Trump, however, chose this moment to spotlight his newfound enthusiasm for “stop and frisk,” a practice that has been abandoned by the NYPD as its implementation is functionally indistinguishable from racial profiling. In recent weeks, Donald Trump has begun a wholly counterintuitive pitch to African Americans that is premised on the idea that Democratic politicians have cynically manipulated their community without ever improving their lot. This argument was not going to be enhanced by embracing “stop and frisk.” Perhaps the two candidates merely held serve in the messages they gave to their respective bases, but that may be a delicate way of saying that Trump knows that he must carry that basket of deplorables. Clinton was more nuanced, more thoughtful, and more knowledgeable on this issue. Score another win for Clinton.
4. Birtherism. Lester Holt introduced Trump’s five-year history of championing the birther movement, and the Donald again attempted to quickly slide past the issue, this time citing his belief that he has put the issue to bed and that he’d rather talk about the big issues of the day. You bet he wish it would go away. As both Clinton and Holt insisted on returning to the issue, Trump’s worst instincts – to defend himself at all costs – came surging forward. Trump proudly claimed that he was the one who had forced Obama to produce the birth certificate, and then compounded the insult by saying that Obama should be grateful to him for doing so. It was at this point that Hillary Clinton said, “Just listen to what you heard.” She proceeded to provide thoughtful commentary, but the truth of it is that her first instinct was right… all she had to do was let Trump dig himself into a bigger and bigger hole.
5. Global security. Trump’s default mechanism is set for hyperbole, and he is never content with a garden variety accusation when the mere addition of imagination and exaggeration can turn it into a doozy. In the section of the debate devoted to foreign policy, Trump attempted to reinterpret the highly combustible instability of the Middle East as solely the responsibility of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. A flashpoint for this debate was when Trump attempted to claim that he had been first and always opposed to W’s war in Iraq, a claim that cannot survive a single viewing of late night comedy video clips that prove exactly the opposite. Rather pathetically, Trump assured the viewing audience that all they needed to do to understand the truth on the matter was to listen to Sean Hannity, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Hannity may be the only person in America whose grip on the concept of objective reality is more tenuous than the Donald’s.
I suspect that across Blue America last night there were audible sighs of relief, testament to the very intense concern that has emerged as the polls have tightened. Last night, with an audience estimated at Super Bowl proportions, Hillary Clinton appeared to stop Donald Trump’s momentum in its tracks. No one should expect a sudden dramatic reduction in Trump’s poll numbers, but the simple act of arresting his progress would be vitally important. The truth is that the first debate usually gets the biggest numbers. Trump blew his biggest chance to actually overtake Clinton. The momentum will likely turn away from Trump, and the window of time available to regain it is now much smaller.
Lester Holt turned in a mediocre performance as the moderator of the debate. In his opening, he admitted to jitters at the size of the audience and drama of the moment, which may be wonderfully human but does not inspire confidence. It is immensely to his credit that he is a gentleman, a restrained and cautious man who did not want to get into a shouting match with a boorish buffoon. But on more than one occasion he granted Trump an extra “twenty seconds,” only to stand by in silence as Trump rattled on for a minute or more. In the end, Holt is just another talking head anchor who fails to grasp that we have entered the era of journalism as an entertainment sport akin to jousting. He needed to be faster on his feet and more aggressive in taking control of the evening.
In my view, Hillary Clinton was not magnificent last night. She is not a naturally gifted orator, and she does not inspire passion. She missed several opportunities to come back hard at Trump, most notably during the discussion on race. For the entire evening Trump had been taunting her about how she had been in politics for 30 years and had accomplished “nothing,” and how she was late to enter the discussion of trade policy. Clinton had the perfect moment to say that it was Trump who had been utterly absent on matters of race, only engaging with the African American population in a blatantly disingenuous last minute attempt to reverse appalling poll numbers.
But Hillary Clinton was very solid, exceedingly well prepared, and unflappable in the face of an unpleasantly aggressive man who devoted his evening to hectoring and belittling her. Never underestimate the value of experience: Clinton has stood on stages like this one for years and years and years. Hillary Clinton “won” the debate, but in fact, Donald Trump may have contributed more to the outcome by virtue of overtly “losing” it.
It is unlikely that Donald Trump’s polling numbers will tumble noticeably. His supporters have proven that there is essentially no outrage that he can say or do that will shake their support for him – or, perhaps, their ferocious loathing for Hillary Clinton.
But we suspect that Trump’s recent climb in the polls is over, that he has squandered the great stage of debate number one, and that he has no one to blame but himself. He's the one who threw the temperament tantrum.