This was undoubtedly the first presidential debate in history to include a mention of Rosie O’Donnell. Even grading on a curve – something the press tends to do with Donald Trump – the Republican fared poorly. Democrat Hillary Clinton took him down on one character issue after another, from his tax returns to his business practices.
Unfortunately, that was not her most important mission on Monday night. Clinton’s fate largely rests on her ability to turn out key Democratic voters in large numbers, especially young people and minorities, by persuading them that she understands their concerns and has an inspiring vision for the future.
There was probably little Clinton could have done to change the nature of the debate, given the media feeding frenzy and the personality-driven nature of our political process. But it was unfortunate. She bested Donald Trump, but she will still need to excite and motivate the Democratic base.
The debate was largely a clash of personalities, rather than a clash of visions for the nation’s future. Moderator Lester Holt asked some excellent questions, including some we had hoped would be asked about the economy and racial justice. But at times it felt as if NORAD should deploy its Christmas Eve “Santa tracker” to find Holt, as long stretches passed with no sign of him.
Holt did step in at several key moments to fact-check Trump on the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk policing, his ability to release his tax returns, and his continued “birtherism” after Barack Obama’s birth certificate had been released. In return, Trump telegraphed weakness when he complained to Holt about how he was being treated.
Trump was most effective in the early minutes of the debate, when he attacked Clinton for her past support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other harmful trade (really, intellectual property) treaties. While she now opposes the TPP, Trump pointed out that as Secretary of State Clinton called it a “gold standard” for such deals.
Clinton was not able to defend herself effectively on the trade issue, and instead went into an odd digression that conflated the 2008 financial crisis, tax policy, the long-term decline of the middle class, and Trump’s expressed desire to exploit the housing crisis.
“It’s called business,” Trump said to that last point.
Trump pressed Clinton effectively on President Obama’s support for the TPP – a line of attack she could have blunted much more effectively by promising to lobby against the deal if Obama introduces it during the lame duck congressional session.
From that moment on, Trump’s best moments were behind him.
Yes, He's a Republican.
Trump squandered an opportunity to talk about infrastructure investment, saying only, “Our airports are like from a Third World country. You land at LaGuardia, you land at Kennedy, you land at LAX, you land at Newark and you come in from Dubai and Qatar and you see these incredible – you come in from China – you see these incredible airports and you land... we become a Third World country.”
True enough. But that’s the symptom of a larger problem: the unwillingness of his own party to support infrastructure investment.
Clinton was most effective when she painted Trump as a typical Republican and hung his party’s past errors around his neck. That was a smart reversal from her habit of characterizing Trump as a deviation from Republican norms. That approach was probably ineffective, kneecapping Democrats running for Congress and robbing her of a powerful line of attack. By tying Trump to his party, she robbed him of his populist aura and linked him to failed GOP policies of the past
Unfortunately, Clinton also characterized Trump’s economic ideas as “trumped up, trickle down.” That’s the kind of phrase that delights politicians and their campaign staff but leave voters cold or confused. Given her struggles to appear spontaneous, it’s also precisely the sort of overly wordsmithed, artificial-sounding phrase Clinton should avoid.
Clinton then mentioned the plight of the middle class, the burdens of student debt, and the need for debt-free college. They were good, if somewhat inchoate, thoughts. But she failed to tie them together into a single economic theme or vision, and that will work to her detriment. Nor did she attack Trump on his misguided deficit fixation – a fixation shared by too many Democrats in the Clinton camp.
On climate change, Trump denied Clinton’s charge that he had characterized it as a Chinese hoax. But he did, and climate denial is the GOP's default position. At a time of planetary crisis, that alone should disqualify him for the presidency. But there was far too little discussion of the policies that are needed to protect the planet.
Lester Holt mentioned recent police shootings of African Americans in Tulsa and Charlotte and asked the candidates how they would “heal the divide.” Clinton spoke about her policies for criminal justice reform, while Trump talked about “law and order” and boasted about his endorsements from police groups. (I thought for a moment he was about to announce the support of the warden from “Cool Hand Luke.”)
Trump sounded like a feudal overlord, or worse, when he spoke about law enforcement. Instead of projecting compassion, he seemed to have his mind on his money (and vice versa):
“And when I look at what's going on in Charlotte, a city I love, a city where I have investments … we need law and order in our country.”
“You don't have good community relations in Chicago. It's terrible. I have property there.”
Trump brought up his support for “stop and frisk” policing, a tactic which has been found unconstitutional, and repeated a great deal of misinformation about urban crime trends. He and Clinton went a few rounds on his favorite topic – law and order – before Holt gamely tried to reassert control by saying, “This conversation is about race …”
Clinton pushed back on Trump’s assertions and commendably addressed sentencing reform, saying: “We have to come forward with a plan that is going to divert people from the criminal justice system, deal with mandatory minimum sentences which have put too many people away for too long for doing too little. We need to have more second chance programs.”
She did, however, wrongly claim that “we’re ending private prisons in the federal system.” The federal prison system is phasing them out, but Homeland Security still detains immigrants in for-profit prisons, and for-profit companies will continue to provide services in public prisons.
But Clinton clearly has a much better grasp of this issue than Trump does. “We have to address the systemic racism in our justice system,” she said.
Policeman of the World
The conversation on national security was equally frustrating. “We cannot be the policeman of the world,” said Trump, a thought that deserved a meaningful exchange. Both candidates should be asked to explain where, when and how they would intervene militarily around the world. But Trump immediately added: “We cannot defend people when they’re not paying us,” a statement that made the United States sound like a private security patrol company. The right questions were never asked.
Neither candidate found the high ground in Iraq. Trump claimed the United States could’ve crushed ISIS by claiming Iraq’s oil revenue for itself. That position is at once unlawful, unethical, and impractical. Clinton failed to offer a coherent plan to stop ISIS in either Iraq or Syria. Meanwhile, neither candidate acknowledged the deaths, not only of thousands of young Americans, but of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and other Middle Easterners.
Trump also claimed that the Iran nuclear agreement was ill-advised because sanctions were devastating that country, which is untrue. He repeated the conservative lie that the United States “gave” the Iranians money to secure the treaty. (Blocked Iranian funds were released as part of the agreement.) It was somewhere around this time that Trump began talking somewhat incoherently about the need to protect “the cyber.”
Observers pointed out that Trump became increasingly less comprehensible as the evening wore on. He also spent the evening sniffling loudly as he spoke – which, if Clinton had done it, would no doubt have been characterized by the right as evidence of a life-threatening disease.
This summary makes the debate sound more substantive than it was. There was too much talk about the candidates – about Clinton’s stamina, emails, and personality, or Trump’s taxes, temperament (which he claimed was “my greatest asset”), and fibbing – and too little about the voters: their fears, their needs, their dreams and their chances for a better future.
Trump got the reality show spectacle he wanted, even if it didn’t go his way. Clinton missed a number of chances to rise above the “Super Bowl” aspect of the debate and appeal directly to the voters she needs the most.
As for the American people – well, they got quite a show. But they didn’t often get the answers they deserved. There was too much contest, and not enough content, in Monday night's debate.
This article has been revised and updated since first publication.