In the first half-hour of the debate, after a sleepy start, it seemed that Donald Trump was taking it to Hillary Clinton in a way that has never happened to her before in a public setting. While I will never be an avid Trump fan, my NeverHillary heart confesses to a momentary frisson. But he really flagged as the night went on, and she seemed to get stronger simply by staying on an even keel – and by exhibiting stamina and sharpness that may allay fears about her health.
It is fair enough to say that she got a lot of help from Lester Holt – more in the selection of topics than in intrusiveness during the proceedings (lots of tax returns and birtherism; no Clinton scandals (which Trump had to bring up), irredeemable basket of deplorables, Benghazi, immigration, Obamacare, etc.). But the post-debate “bash Lester Holt” gambit is not going to fly: Speaking for the Trump campaign, Kellyanne Conway weirdly said Holt did a great job. More importantly, media bias on behalf of the Democrats is baked in the cake, so it is Trump’s task to be ready for it and to raise the matters Hillary and her media friends would prefer to bury. Trump was not prepared to do that last night. And when he tried to do it, he rambled in half-sentences and self-interruptions that made what he was saying hard to follow.
What I found most frustrating was that Trump, even when he was on the offensive, allowed Clinton to get away with nonsense that, having gone uncorrected, becomes conventional wisdom. For example, aided by Holt’s kicking the evening off with a delusional portrayal of a booming American economy, Hillary claimed that the Great Recession was caused by “trickle down economics.” It was all well and good for Trump to champion job-creation by lower corporate taxes, streamlined regulation, and the repatriation of trillions in wealth stashed overseas due to Washington’s confiscatory policies. In fact, it was the high point of the night for him. But he let pass the hazardous government policies (on mortgages, on too-big-to-fail) that were so central to the collapse and that can easily be traced back to the Clinton years – a matter of no small importance since Hillary keeps talking about how her husband’s policies led to prosperity.
The Iran deal was another topic on which Trump should easily have been able to refute Hillary’s have-it-both-ways claims: The deal is both a great one that “put a lid” on the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions, and a not great one that was necessary because war was the only alternative. All Trump needed here was to remember and recite about five or six simple facts; but while Trump raised the volume and went into attack mode, he flailed his way through the $1.7 billion cash payoff in a way that was hard to follow, neglected to point out how even the Obama administration concedes that Iran’s windfall will fuel anti-American terrorism, and failed to tell us what he will do about the deal if elected.
Trump seemed to reserve his most robust rebuttals for the matters of least consequence. I don’t think anyone much cares, for example, that he is disingenuous in claiming to have opposed the invasion of Iraq from the start – certainly no one gave a hoot when we pointed it out during the GOP primaries. More significantly, with Clinton having shamefully first supported the war and then joined the Democrats’ campaign to undermine it, neither candidate is going to get mileage attacking the other’s Iraq wavering. Nevertheless, Trump appears to have been goaded by the Clinton campaign’s “fact-checking” focus on this topic into a lengthy counter-case that was unconvincing and hinges on Sean Hannity’s recollection of conversations that happened 12 or 13 years ago. This is not going to move anyone – to the limited extent positions on Iraq circa 2003-04 matter to voters at this point.
On the whole, it was a night that probably won’t shift the race appreciably. Hillary benefits from the projection of thoughtful competence and the lack of an opponent who could harpoon that image by tying her ideas to real world disasters. At times, Trump showed indications that he could be such an opponent … but not if he doesn’t do his homework.