The conventional wisdom has hardened to granite. Matt Lauer was the worst debate moderator in history. He was unprepared. He hammered Hillary and devoted too much time to emails. He let Trump lie like crazy without calling him to account at all. He probably threw the election, made Trump president and nudged us down the hill toward the apocalypse. I don’t agree. I don’t think he did great. I partly agree with the criticisms. But I think he did considerably better than people are giving him credit for.
Here’s my argument.
As I said, I’m not saying Lauer did great. He devoted an inordinate amount of time to the email question. To whatever extent the producers had some preview into the audience questions they gave Clinton much tougher and much harsher questions from the audience. He was definitely tougher on Clinton.
But set that aside. Let’s talk about Trump.
It’s possible that Matt Lauer was just sitting there being useless while Trump was stupid. No one forced Trump to blurt out that the best example of how great his Mexico trip went was that the guy who invited him (the Finance Minister) was just forced to resign. But I am happy to say that during the debate itself and right after it was over I thought Lauer was coming at Trump more than critics were giving him credit for.
Agree. But I think he’s actually cut into Trump too. Less imbalanced than people are saying. https://t.co/7c7vVFJrwu
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) September 8, 2016
At other points he was a sort of Trump whisperer, nudging Trump on to expand on his ridiculous points. At various points he simply let Trump be Trump. And that turned out to be really bad for Trump.
Am I holding Lauer to a lowish standard? Sure I am, to an extent. But I’m mainly saying he did better than the wildly negative reviews he’s getting.
A few examples.
The entire exchange about rape, in which Trump essentially doubled down on his “boys will be boys” theory of rape, was entirely Lauer’s doing. Trump came off his seemingly concerned audience answer about sexual assault in the military and Lauer hit him with that tweet.
Of course, since Trump is Trump he couldn’t not insist he was right. It was only using Trump’s words to press him. It wasn’t a dramatic “You Lie!” moment. But it was fair, tough and deeply revealing.
At another point he asked Trump to explain the difference between his “secret plan” and the plan he’s going to give the generals 30 days to report back with when he becomes president. This was a simple matter of pointing out Trump’s nonsense. Trump took the bait and Lauer pressed for more nonsense – admittedly in a sort of “I’m just a simple guy and that doesn’t totally make sense to me” kind of vein. And to Lauer’s pressing for more nonsense, Trump happily obliged. Read the transcript of this interchange which I discussed at more length here.
As I wrote last night, on the surface this is a discussion about the “secret plan” and the “generals’ plan.” Trump keeps spooling it out in different directions. But reading the words it’s clear, just as it was watching it live, that this whole exchange is, in the deepest sense of the word, bullshit. The entire passage is based on the fact that Trump has spent weeks saying he has a secret plan to destroy ISIS and now he says his plan is to get his generals to take thirty days to come up with a plan. So clearly he never had a secret plan. That’s obvious. Lauer makes it obvious. But Trump doesn’t want to, is probably characterologically incapable of admitting the obvious. So he spends the whole exchange going on about tactical surprise, his secret plan, the generals plan, a possible combo plan. It’s like all the words are noise and Trump is saying to Lauer again and again: I’m not going to give in.
I think that was pretty obvious for people in a way that transcends politics and ideology. Trump is the kid telling the teacher the dog ate his homework. Then the teacher points out he has no dog. But he’s not going to apologize or come clean. He’s just going to keep talking.
There were other examples – like when Trump reeled out his inane idea of taking the oil back with us from Iraq. This came right before the passage above about ‘the secret plan’.
TRUMP: You’ve been watching me I think for a long time — I’ve always said, shouldn’t be there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil. If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil.
LAUER: How were we going to take the oil? How were we going to do that?
TRUMP: Just we would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil. They have — people don’t know this about Iraq, but they have among the largest oil reserves in the world, in the entire world.
And we’re the only ones, we go in, we spend $3 trillion, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then, Matt, what happens is, we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: Take the oil.
One of the benefits we would have had if we took the oil is ISIS would not have been able to take oil and use that oil…
LAUER: Let me stay on ISIS…
TRUMP: … to fuel themselves.
I’m not going to give Lauer a Pulitzer for asking Trump the pretty obvious follow-up of ‘How in the hell are we going to take the oil?’ But it was effective – at least in getting Trump to expand on his nonsensical idea. I don’t think Lauer needed to say anything more about how ridiculous this was.
Did Lauer never factcheck Trump in real time?
Well, that’s not quite true either. Here’s Trump basically lying about Hillary’s statements about the VA.
TRUMP: Hillary Clinton six months ago said the vets are being treated essentially just fine, there’s no real problem, it’s over-exaggerated. She did say that.
LAUER: No, no, she went on after that and laid out a litany of problems within the V.A.
TRUMP: Look, I mean, she made up half of the things she said about me. I’m telling you, this is — she said she was satisfied with what was going on in the Veterans Administration.
Commentators tend to fall in love with their theories and then overdo them because of that love and self-regard. I hope I’m not doing that. I don’t think Lauer did a great job. He devoted too much time to the email issue. There were various times where I suspect that he was just overwhelmed by Trump’s nonsense and didn’t know where to start in correcting him. He certainly should have piped up when Trump falsely claimed that he’d been against the Iraq War when we have so much proof that that’s a straight up lie. But he did press Trump and he came back at Trump, albeit in fairly soft ways, which prompted Trump to double down or expand on moronic or transparently ridiculous arguments. Maybe I’m giving Lauer too much credit and he was just the Mr Magoo of Trump moderators, blindly and luckily walking into saying things that made Trump make a fool of himself. But I don’t think that’s quite the fullness of what happened.
At some level people, especially liberals, are thinking that viewers are idiots and that the moderator needs to go into some sort of moderator primal scream mode saying ‘No, you’re lying. You keep lying. Please stop lying!!!’ Sometimes that really feels necessary. Sometime it truly is necessary. But that’s not necessarily the most effective way to go about it. Certainly it’s not the only way. You have two conventional wisdoms this morning. 1) That Donald Trump sounded like an idiot who’s made things up as we went along and 2) that Matt Lauer was the worst moderator in forever. But there doesn’t seem to be much reflection that point 2 (or at least Lauer’s role as moderator) might have had some role in point 1.
People always come back to me and say some version of “What about Bush? He was a moron and people ate it up because people went easy on him.”
Well, that’s sort of true. But it’s not the whole story.
Bush had low expectations, certainly. And his ignorance and incuriosity turned out to have very damaging effects on the country over eight years. But this is a mistaken or at least incomplete read about who Bush was and how he succeeded. And we shouldn’t mislead ourselves. Bush wasn’t stupid. And how he succeeded in debates was very specific. He went into debates with four or five pat overview answers and hammered them in response to almost any questions. It was clear that Bush wasn’t particularly knowledgable about the world abroad or much of any policy question. But he also never pretended to be. His conceit was that he had good instincts, good motives and would surround himself with the best people.
To me and perhaps you, that doesn’t cut it. I care about government and I know the details actually matter. It’s almost an insult that someone like that would think he should be president. It’s nuts to me that people would vote for someone like that to be president. But not everyone thinks the way I do. There’s a reason why his schtick was effective and it’s worth understanding why.
What Trump did was very different. He riffed and made a lot of nonsensical points. He said a bunch of things which for better or worse will offend a lot of Americans across the political spectrum. And in a way that I think was obvious to people across a broad swathe of the political spectrum he was obviously making stuff up as he went along, not only showing his ignorance but also his arrogance.
Remember, one of the things that charmed people about Bush was that he didn’t claim to be an expert. Trump is definitely an expert, according to Trump. On everything. He’s smarter than the generals. He’s smarter than everyone at the VA. He’s never wrong. About anything. And yet he says we should have brought the oil back with us from Iraq – something that almost anyone can figure out simply makes no sense.
I’ve never met Matt Lauer and I never watch early morning TV. I’m either working or asleep. I have zero investment in Lauer doing well or terribly. But he didn’t do as badly as people are claiming. He came at Trump more than people are saying and he pressed Trump to expand on and double down on being Trump. And that did not go well for Trump. Not at all.