So it happened: Donald Trump faced Hillary Clinton onstage in the first presidential debate, and the earth didn’t swallow us up and end civilization as we knew it. The earth did not stand still. What had seemed like a bad dream wasn’t a dream: Trump is the GOP nominee for president of the United States, and only Clinton stands between him and the nuclear codes. There must be a German word for the feeling you get when something so terrible happens, you think you’re imagining it, but I haven’t found it yet. There they were, together, in the flesh, on the debate stage, with polls showing the race tightening. This match meant something serious.
Clinton faced asymmetric warfare at Hofstra: She is knowledgeable, wonky, experienced, conscientious; Trump is the opposite of all of that. His folks had been telling the media she had more to lose, as the great debater; he just had to fail to swear, spew misogyny, and tell obvious lies in order to exceed expectations. The Democrat went in as “the AP high-school history teacher,” conservative Hugh Hewitt observed on MSNBC Sunday, avoiding overt sexism but tooting a misogynist dog whistle, while “Trump is the loud but winning football coach.”
Well, the football coach flopped, badly. Trump came in unprepared and winging it, and he never got more serious or grounded in policy or detail as the night went on. Clinton found a way to sound competent without being overbearing or scolding. From early on Trump hectored her, interrupting and talking over her, and she handled it with aplomb. She regularly advised the audience to check her Web site, HillaryClinton.com, for real-time fact-checking. “Donald, I know you live in your own reality,” she said calmly. And it gradually became clear she was right.
The pre-debate before the debate centered on whether Lester Holt would adequately fact-check Trump, and he did a decent job—as did Clinton herself. Holt or Clinton or Clinton’s campaign caught a lot of Trump’s lies—that he’d never said climate change was a Chinese hoax, or that pregnancy was an inconvenience to employers. He continued to claim he’d opposed the Iraq war, though Holt challenged him. Clinton teased some remarkable admissions from Trump. When she mentioned the years he hasn’t paid federal taxes, and suggested that might be the reason he won’t release them now, he jumped in with, “That makes me smart.” When she harshly chided Trump for stiffing small business vendors—dishwashers, architects, and window installers—he likewise snapped, “Maybe he didn’t do a good job.” When she reminded him that he rooted for the 2007 housing crash in 2006, he also said, “That’s called business.” Trump’s white working-class voters now know more about his approach to business; sadly, I can’t imagine that will drive them to Clinton.
Maybe not surprisingly, Trump blew Holt’s questions about race in the worst way. Asked how he would heal racial division, Trump came back with a pledge to restore “law and order” and promised to bring back New York’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” law. That didn’t seem the right answer when Holt was asking about the racial divide, unless you think about the racial divide only from the white side.
At least he didn’t wear a “white power tie,” as Zach Galifianakis suggested; his cravat was a calm blue.
Just as important, Clinton did a better job articulating her vision for the country than she often does. She blasted her opponent’s economic policies as “Trumped-up trickle-down…It got us into the mess we were in in 2008 and 2009.” She promised to make college debt free and to reduce existing student loans. “I don’t think top-down works in America,” she said, promising not to deliver more “advantages for people at the very top.”
Unbelievably, Trump seemed to return to his birther roots, insisting that his crusade to humiliate the first black president by getting him to show his papers was worthwhile. He continued to falsely insist Clinton had started birtherism, which was another time Holt jumped in to correct the record. Even so, Trump claimed credit for proving something that needed no proof. “I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate and I think I did a good job,” he told Holt.
Holt didn’t always succeed in keeping Trump from interrupting Clinton when it was her turn. I was of two minds about that. Mostly it showed her equanimity in the face of Trump’s attacks. At one point she remarked, “I have a feeling that by the end of this evening I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.” Trump responded: “Why not?” The point went to Clinton.
Trump claimed he won the night’s debate, which shouldn’t be surprising. But instant polls found that viewers disagreed. The CNN instant debate-watchers poll said Clinton beat Trump 62-27. It will take a week to see if this night made a lasting impression. But Trump likely surrendered the advantage that he’s accumulated in the last week or so. Debates don’t often make a real electoral difference, but given how odd this year has been, it’s possible Trump’s debut before a television audience that may just be starting to tune in will hurt him.