By now, several days after the first presidential debate of 2016, everybody seems to have an opinion about what happened. The mainstream media has busied itself assuring the public that Hillary won: she was “precise”; she was “knowledgeable”; she was “presidential.”
Campaigning in North Carolina the next day, she “ran a victory lap,” meaning (since no one can really picture Hillary running even a very small lap) that she reminded people of how precise, knowledgeable, and presidential she had been the night before, at least in the eyes of certified authority.
There is no denying that she was “prepared” (for the nonce, another mainstream media adjective) to school her audience on the nefarious past of Donald Trump, which she did with great success for the second half of the debate, and allowing that any good high-school debater would have used the same strategy, the ploy worked.
Whether any of this makes her the stuff of which presidents are made is another question. The answer depends on how one assesses her abilities in the fields of foreign and domestic policy.
Alas, Donald Trump proved ill prepared and, quite possibly, ill equipped to underscore her deficiencies. Like the sitting president—who, one assumes, must be presidential of necessity—Trump sees himself as a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, a better policy wonk than his policy wonks (if he has any on his staff), and a better political director than his political director.
Oh, did I mention a better debater than his debate coaches? I guess not because he does have one. From all accounts, Trump spent the days before Monday’s debate campaigning as only he can: making speeches that are largely unscripted and discussing policies of which he knows all too little. Debate prep was not his thing, and before the fateful night was over, it showed.
Not that it was all that bad. For the first thirty to forty minutes, Trump managed to keep, at least for him, cool and display what many have found missing, a good temperament. And, indeed, for many, including me, that was just about all he needed to do. For those who signed off at 9:30, he might have appeared a safe bet for the oval office. But as this interminable campaign has demonstrated, far from being a tough slugger, Trump is obviously and even shamelessly thin-skinned.
Primary opponents, debate moderators, and journalists alike have found that if they were willing to subject the Trumpian body to a few exploratory jabs, they would soon find a glass jaw, a glass nose, a glass you-name-it—any part of his anatomy you care to list—and that the next day the “champ” would be bellyaching about a rigged fight.
But not quite after debate one (by the way, the most heavily watched presidential debate in history). The day after found Trump on Fox (where else?) congratulating himself on his fine performance. That’s truly unsettling for his friends because it’s signals an aversion to preparing for the next debate.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before Laura Ingraham was assessing the debate in terms of what people “really” learned. Ann Coulter proclaimed that Trump won the debate “by proving he wasn’t Hitler.” And that was from his number one fan, but if the bar is set that low, we may as well settle for Hillary who, for all her faults, is certainly not Hitler either.
Was there anything new that came out of this much ballyhooed kerfuffle?
Hillary does great in any debate where the moderator, Lester Holt on this night, tosses her slow-pitch questions, ignoring the email scandal, the Clinton Foundation’s conflict of interest, the Russian “reset,” Benghazi, the Middle East in general, and a tenure in the Senate that produced not one significant success—but this is familiar territory for anyone who followed the Democrats’ debates during the primary season.
It was minor news that Trump could remain calm for even half an hour on a debate stage but no news at all that he was lukewarm or hostile to such things as NATO and America’s picking up the military tab for Japan, South Korea, and Germany. On the issue of trade, Trump remains appalled by the TPP; so is Hillary—for now. As Trump rightly interjected, she called it the “gold standard” once upon a time. They both railed at one another for what they haven’t released: Trump’s tax return(s) and Hillary’s withheld emails. And so the night went.
Will the second debate be an improvement? I have my doubts, but it may be different for Hillary. Convinced that she has mastered her own art of the deal, namely, of dealing the public an inventory of Trump’s shady transactions, she will concentrate on presenting herself as the expert on everything. What else can she do? It’s out of the question for her to say, “Trust me.” If accommodating moderator will ask the “right” questions, she’ll have it made. As for Trump, he’ll come in on a wing and a prayer, and, if I may mix my metaphors, flat-footed from start to finish, which will mean a repeat of his first performance.
It’s an odd situation. Trump is so well established by now as a know-nothing that nobody expects an even moderately serious presentation of policy from him. Hillary is so thoroughly notorious for her self-righteous lawlessness that her detractors wouldn’t believe her if she changed water into wine onstage. All told, there isn’t a chance in the world one side will listen to the other, which must leave a lot of people wondering why on earth these pointless “debates” are being held in the first place.