Hempstead, N.Y. — In the days leading up to Monday night’s debate, according to their aides, Hillary Clinton had her nose buried in briefing books and Donald Trump was preparing to wing it.
As the two general-election candidates faced off for the first time at Hofstra University, they were utterly themselves: Trump loud and relentless as he hammered Clinton as a creature of Washington incapable of effecting change, Clinton stilted and strained as she poked holes in his arguments and made a less than energetic case for competence and experience.
The evening mirrored the campaign as a whole: By rights, the hyper-prepared Clinton should have crushed the political neophyte, but when the night was over, his bluster, his asides, and his interruptions all seem to have produced something of a draw.
The strongest moments of the evening for Trump came right out of the box, as he assailed Clinton for her support for free-trade deals that have driven American jobs overseas and left lower- and middle-class Americans hurting.
When Clinton said she opposes the agreement, Trump talked right over her. “You called it the gold standard!” he said.
The debate was a first in many regards, pitting the first female nominee of a major party against the first nominee who is a reality-television celebrity. Both are deeply distrusted and deeply unpopular. And with between 15 and 20 percent of voters saying they remain undecided, the event seemed to have taken on heightened importance.
In the first moments, Trump parried Clinton’s anodyne talk about building “an economy for everyone” and an “economy that works for you” with jabs at how seemingly little Washington has changed in the decades she’s been there.
Clinton said she knows “how to really work to get new jobs and create new jobs.”
“But you haven’t done it in 30 years,” he replied.
Clinton succeeded in getting the better of Trump when it came to his business practices, though, painting him as a somebody who has gotten rich by exploiting the little guy – and who launched his business empire only with the help of a “$14 million loan from his father.” She derided this as “trumped-up, trickle-down economics.” (It was only “a very small loan,” he shot back.)
Clinton bore the burden of expectations going into the evening by virtue not only of the decades she has spent in politics as first lady, senator, and secretary of state, but also of the sorts of things her allies had to say in the run-up to the event. They built her up and belittled her opponent. Her running mate, Tim Kaine, predicted that she would bring her “A-plus game,” while Susie Tompkins Bell, a longtime Clinton friend, told the Associated Press that Trump would “be like Serena Williams playing tennis with Chris Christie.”
But both candidates faced enormous pressure. The debate presented them with a concrete opportunity to address voters’ most serious doubts about them. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for Clinton those doubts relate to her decisions in dealing with Syria, Iraq, and Libya — subjects addressed only in passing in the debate — and about her use of a private e-mail server, which she said tersely was a mistake for which she takes responsibility.
Trump walked on stage facing doubts about his temperament and about his attitude toward women, immigrants, and Muslims. Though he was a calmer, cooler, and more collected version of himself for the first few minutes of the debate, he quickly reverted to his old self, assuring voters that he has “the best temperament” while interrupting both Clinton and moderator Lester Holt and making audible asides throughout the evening.
Trump is struggling to get women’s votes, but he exhibited little fear of alienating them.
Addressing the increasing racial tensions in the country, he said, “African Americans, Hispanics, are living in hell.” He let out an audible groan when Clinton replied, “It’s unfortunate that he paints such a dire picture of black communities.” When Clinton noted that he had been sued in the 1970s for housing discrimination, Trump said circumspectly that he had “settled the suit with zero, with no admission of guilt.”
He ceded no ground on the birther issue, either, essentially heralding it as one of his qualifications for the presidency. “I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate,” Trump said of President Obama. “And I think I did a good job,” he said. Trump raised eyebrows later in the debate when, addressing Clinton, he referred to Obama as “your president.”
It was this sort of remark that tickled Clinton’s Democratic allies. “I assume if you listen to all the reports about the Trump strategy it was to be very docile, to be very sedate, but that’s not who he is,” says David Plouffe, the architect of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns who is now serving as a Clinton surrogate. “I don’t think Trump necessarily did anything to peel away from his support, but he has to add support. This is an additive exercise.”
Though polls show that Trump is struggling to get women’s votes, he exhibited little fear of alienating them. He repeatedly attempted to talk over Clinton and, asked to clarify his remark that Clinton doesn’t have the “look” to be president, he said, “She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina.”
Clinton responded, citing her time as secretary of state, when she traveled to 112 countries, and even her eleven-hour testimony before the Select Committee on Benghazi.
Trump hurling insults, Clinton ticking off items on her résumé: both candidates, utterly themselves.
– Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review. Alexis Levinson is National Review’s senior political reporter.