If the first presidential debate had been a fisticuffs-styled sporting event, Donald Trump would have been a WWF brawler, the kind who thinks nothing of hitting below the belt or even biting his opponent. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, would have been a bare-knuckled boxer, who fought by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. The match would have gone to Clinton on a unanimous vote. While she didn’t score a knockout, or, perhaps, even a knockdown, she would have been the clear winner on all of the judges’ ballots, and by decisive margins.
That verdict, if my assessment (written within an hour of the end of the debate) is correct, is the good news for Hillary Clinton from the debate. The less good news is that she will still be in a dog-fight with Trump as the campaign continues (with two more slugfests and a VP debate still to come).
Trump swung hard, especially at the beginning of the 90-minute event; that’s what brawlers do. But he ran out of gas fairly quickly and was struggling to stay on his feet by the end of the contest. Clinton, on the other hand, hardly broke a sweat. She jabbed incessantly, and even threw in a couple of haymakers that stung. And she received his attempted blows almost like Mohammed Ali used to absorb hits from his feckless opponents. If they hurt her, she certainly didn’t show it.
All right; enough with the boxing/wrestling metaphor. Let me tell you what I really think, and, again, I’m drafting these thoughts without the benefit of post-debate spin, which undoubtedly will paint a different view (at least from the Trump camp’s perspective).
But let’s be candid; Trump was just not prepared for the kind of debate this format envisioned.
And Lester Holt, who was often silent during most of the back-and-forth exchanges between the two candidates, did insist, on several key occasions, that Trump provide serious answers to his questions. Two in particular stood out. The first was his query about Trump’s tax returns, where Trump’s “I’m under an audit” answer didn’t cut it with Holt. When Holt persisted, Trump finally “agreed” that he would release his returns when Clinton released the 33,000 e-mails (a line that drew an outburst of applause from his side of the room).
The second, and more damaging Holt question, was on Trump’s birther history, and there Trump just didn’t cut it. He tried the “Hillary started it” line, but by repeatedly mentioning Sidney Blumenthal and Patti Solis Doyle, he unsuccessfully evaded the thrust of Holt’s question, which was, in essence, why did he persist in making the claim (that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.) for fully five years after the president released his long-form birth certificate?
Clinton, as was to be expected, didn’t let him wiggle out of the hole Holt was suggesting Trump belonged in, and she scored well in that particular exchange. She also scored effectively throughout the foreign policy part of the debate, appearing as studied and knowledgeable on foreign affairs as Trump was ignorant and unprepared. Trump, in fact, was almost incoherent at times during that portion of the debate. He botched badly his comments on Japan, to the point that I’m not sure if he even knows that Japan is protected by treaty with the U.S. against any attack, nuclear or otherwise.
And on nukes, Trump was just plain scary. He either didn’t understand Holt’s question about the first-strike policy that Obama has chosen to adhere to or hadn’t thought through just what his position is on the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Clinton, on the other hand, knows the issue well and spoke reassuringly to America’s allies, who are protected by treaties with the U.S. from the need to develop nuclear weapons of their own.
And then came the coup de grace, when Holt, in the debates closing minutes, questioned Trump on his assertion that Clinton doesn’t look like a president. Trump side-stepped that sexist remark by stepping in another one: that she lacked the stamina to be president. Unfortunately for him, Clinton was standing tall at that point, and it was Trump himself who was showing the lack of stamina.
So, if Clinton won the debate so decisively, why won’t she move ahead significantly in the polls? I think we will see a slight advantage building for her in the latter part of the week, but the hard truth is that much of the electorate will still have questions about her character, which can also be read as saying that a sizeable number of voters will continue not to like (or trust) her.
Why isn’t she more liked (and trusted)? A lot of it is her public persona, which is just not all that natural. She doesn’t easily show basic human traits like warmth and passion. Instead, she comes across as a practiced politician, one who is always just a little too careful to test which way the wind is blowing to be seen as a real person.
Of course, much of that perception is unfair, some of it created by media bias against her and her husband, and some the result of being much smarter than just about everyone else. Hillary Clinton might be the best real person imaginable when you really get to know her (that’s what her close friends all say), but she never lets the general public get to know her. Instead, she reacts defensively (to the point of going months without even holding a press conference) when she is attacked. She rarely shows anything other than that unflappable debate performer who left her opponent all but knocked out in the first presidential debate.
She may still win this election and go on to be a very good president, but Donald Trump will continue to be the “change” candidate, and he’ll continue to nip at her heels all the way to election day, when turn-out and level of enthusiasm still may determine the outcome.
Think I’m wrong? Just recall the 2000 election when the policy wonk lost to the guy who couldn’t speak straight.