Let me start by saying that my central prediction about this debate was wrong. I thought Trump’s big obstacle was getting pressed on a specific policy question, not having any idea what he was talking about and riffing his way into nonsense or easily controvertible lies. That close to didn’t happen at all.
The debate ended up proceeding quite differently. In the first few exchanges Trump was on point pushing a message of economic nationalism, opposition to international trade agreements and job loss. Clinton, notably, barely engaged on this front, preferring to steer her responses to questions about tax equity, middle class families, trickle down economics, etc. But those initial jousts, that focus only lasted for ten or maybe 15 minutes.
Clinton clearly went into this debate not looking for one or two big “Have you no decency” moments but rather looking to hit him with a rat-tat-tat series of taunts and jabs to see if she could get him to lose his cool and throw him off his game. It ended up happening a lot more quickly than I expected. No more than fifteen minutes in he was getting visibly angry. And he stayed that way for the next hour plus.
From maybe a half hour into the debate Clinton had almost entirely seized the initiative. She was attacking while he responded, sometimes angrily, sometimes with new attacks and very often by doubling down on demonstrable falsehoods he’s been pilloried for for months. At various moments he shuffled in and out of parts of his stump speech. But through most of the exchange he constantly interrupted Clinton, talked over her, denied claims she made which are easily validated. In terms of body language and style it was thermonuclear Rick Lazio.
There were so many examples of this I lost track: the Chinese and global warming; on hoping for a housing crisis, “that’s business,”; we should have taken the oil; he was totally against the Iraq War.
Just a mix of easily demonstrable lies and nonsensical statements.
Trump had no good answer on why he refused to release his taxes. And I think on live TV, watched by maybe 100 million people, the fact that he’s lying about this was pretty obvious. On birtherism he tried to resurface the argument that Clinton was the real birther, just not as effective as he was. “I think I did a great job and a great service in getting the President to give his birth certificate.”
If we’re going to use boxing metaphors, my read was that for the last two thirds or so of the debate she had him almost constantly on the ropes. He was almost always reacting to her. He was swiping, swinging, sometimes nasty, sometimes getting in applause lines – but he was reacting to her almost throughout. Most of the time he was ranging between outbursts, denying claims, saying how many people loved him and are happy. At other times, he talked about how she’d spent more money on ads than he had, how his poll numbers were going up. Hardcore partisans care about this stuff. Not anyone else. It’s the stuff you grouse or brag about to your staff. Not the stuff you use in a debate. In the most basic sense, Trump spent most of the debate talking about himself and complaining about how he was being treated.
Two key points to finish up. In this debate, Trump repeated virtually every lie he’s told through this campaign. He settled birtherism. He opposed the Iraq War. He can’t release his tax returns because of an audit. This time he said them in front of a hundred million people. Those things will each come up again now.
Finally, the most obvious thing was there right in front of us. We heard a lot about Clinton preparing in depth for this debate. Trump, we’re told … well his advisors couldn’t get him to do any real debate prep. He had bull sessions with Christie and Giuliani and Gen. Flynn. I now find those claims quite believable. Her preparation and his cocky indifference to doing so showed in both cases. Clinton was poised and unflappable. She needled him but not in a way that seemed nasty or petulant. She was poised throughout. It was equally clear that he had no clear strategy for what to do. For that among other reasons she took control of the debate within a half hour.
There was no knock out blow here. I don’t know that it will move the polls dramatically. But Trump was scattered, swaggering and stumbling. He lied a lot and repeatedly refused to answer big questions in a way that was fairly obvious and transparent. If you hadn’t heard him refuse to release his taxes before, how do you think it came off here? I think most people who had doubts about him won’t have those doubts assuaged. People inclined not to like him likely found him bullying and rude – and not even successful at it at that. I’m not sure this is any game changer. It simply confirms what a lot of people already know: Trump is not suited to be President. Clinton is competent, prepared and in this exchange buoyant and dynamic.
If I know anything about Trump he’ll feel wounded by this encounter, low-stamina Hillary, almost a foot shorter than him, a weak women … well, she controlled him and owned the floor. Like we saw with Pastor Timmons and so many others who have hurt him, he’ll lash out.
I think the night went badly for Trump. We’ll have several days again going over his list of lies. And the pressure on him will go up for the second debate.