There was no winner in the first presidential debate of 2016. With her clearly superior command of trivia1 and decades spent in political offices, many expected Hillary Clinton to do far better than Trump in the debate. This expected performance did not materialize. Across the stage, many expected Trump’s combative and energetic style to overwhelm Clinton and, thusly, carry the day. This expected performance, likewise, did not materialize.
Whatever was expected, what we received, as viewers, was a cranky, old woman scolding a narcissistic, old man, a narcissistic, old man who was, in turn, snarking at a cranky, old woman. Even if one of them had clearly won the debate, we would all still have lost. It is expected, some would even contend required, of politicians to be pathological liars, but the better ones are at least subtle or elegant in their mendacity. Trump, for his part, simply denied that he had ever made previous statements that he had provably made2, while Clinton simply repeated Leftist talking points with complete disregard for the truth and reality alike.
Now, if we were to score the contest objectively and fairly, Trump would probably be the winner. His attacks hit harder and cut deeper (e.g., the Iran deal, foreign trade deals, ISIS, and the email scandal), while hers were mostly rhetorical flourishes or bons mots meant to elicit a reaction from the audience and those whose news comes primarily from comedy shows (e.g., her line about preparing for the debate and preparing to be president)3. At best, Clinton won over a few undecideds, while Trump presented a much subdued façade (something many have been calling upon him to do), and in doing so may have assuaged some of the fears of those on the fence about his temperament and whether or not he could, in fact, act presidential if elected.
Both candidates largely appealed to their respective bases (perhaps forgetting that the primaries have passed), and largely did not win many votes via debate performance. Either candidate could bring forth a stellar performance in the next debate and truly shift the trajectory of the election. Trump has the easier route to this sort of victory.
After thirty years in politics, Clinton has amassed an almost impressive number of scandals, all Trump has to do is hit her and hit her hard. Nothing should be considered off limits at this point. Bring up her husband’s sex scandals and the rape accusations4 (and the payouts and Hillary’s covering for Bill), seat Bill’s mistresses in the front row, bring up Benghazi and her lies about the YouTube video, bring up the email scandal and make her defend her clearly politically motivated ‘exoneration’ by a compromised FBI, bring up the gun-running of the Obama Administration and get her to detail her stance on firearms, bring up the Iran deal and make her defend allowing a major sponsor of world terrorism to obtain a nuclear weapon5, bring up her property and futures dealings and make her defend her wealth in light of her proposed social and tax policies, bring up her past comments on race and “superpredators” and make her defend her clear pandering and racialist division of the electorate. The list goes on and on ad nauseam. Trump has a weapon with virtually unlimited ammunition, he just needs to use it.
For Clinton, the path is steeper and less certain. She can hit Trump on his bankruptcies and his taxes6, but these issues really energize only her base and leave most others disinterested; she can hit him on past comments about climate change, but “it’s the economy stupid”7; she can hit him on his past comments about women, but that will earn her few votes and she is weak on that front; she can expound on her record, but much of the country knows her record and intensely dislikes her because of that record; she can hit him on moral issues (e.g., abortion and adultery), but she will never carry the Conservative religious vote so it gains her nothing (and she is at least as vulnerable on those issues as Trump is); she can hit him on his lack of knowledge when it comes to foreign affairs8, but a strain of isolationism that is almost as old as the country itself is resurgent in the US and some agree with his comments; and she can hit him on temperament and decorum, but many of his supports like his brash style (and he proved in the debate that he can tone down his personality when necessary).
If nothing else, Clinton deserves credit for keeping her cool while dealing with Trump when, at times, it must feel like trying to catch a greased pig (i.e., an exasperating task made all the most trying by the fact that the pig likes it). Trump, for his part, deserves credit for keeping himself (mostly) under control and appearing, if not more respectable, at least more reasonable9. Nevertheless, there was, as stated at the outset, no winner in the debate. Trump won on substance10 and tact, Clinton won on poise and presentation, and neither won on style or performance. As for the rest of us? We all lost, but this is a democracy and we deserve what we get.
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserves to get it good and hard.
— H. L. Mencken
We can hope for a better second debate, but hope is merely the progenitor of disappointment and disillusionment. Of course, this is, as others have said, the “dumpster fire” election. The bar may not be high, but I’ve no doubt we can find some way to limbo under it.
- And I do mean trivia, as her command of the facts may be degenerating due to excessive consumption of the Kool-Aid (or FlavorAid if we prefer to be historically accurate). ↩
- e.g., that climate change is a conspiracy meant to enrich the Chinese. ↩
- In fairness, the comment about the nuclear codes and being provoked by tweets was witty and strikes a certain chord with some voters (and with more Europeans). ↩
- Yes, plural. ↩
- A dispassionate analysis of the Iran deal clearly shows that it paves the way for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, just on a slightly delayed timetable. Even if the deal didn’t pave Iran’s path to nuclear power, this is still politics. ↩
- His bankruptcies seem to attract little interest from the part of the electorate that isn’t already securely in her camp, so addressing them is of questionable utility (even though it does erode the narrative of Trump being an excellent businessman). Harping on taxation may not be wise, considering the electorate’s growing distaste for an ever-increasing tax and regulatory burden (nevermind that the attack is disingenuous). ↩
- This election is, primarily, about the economy and national security. Only a very small percentage of the electorate truly cares about climate change (and that percentage of the electorate is already essentially religiously Democrat). ↩
- Saying that we “cannot defend Japan” is alarming, to say the least (even if he obviously meant “We cannot continue to defend Japan for free without any contributions from the Japanese to their own security.”). ↩
- A standard so low that I almost cannot believe I am advancing it. ↩
- n.b., “substance” here means that the things he referenced were of greater weight, not necessarily that his comments themselves had greater substance. ↩