There will no doubt be a raft of fact-checking follow-ups on Monday night’s debate. Hillary partisans will claim she won. Trump partisans will insist he won. Not many people will have heard the debate with the same ears.
That’s where we are in America, 2016.
Just a few impressions.
1. Hillary skated big time. Lester Holt didn’t take her to task on anything embarrassing. That’s actually a key point, because it goes to the way many viewers “heard” and processed the debate.
If they had had a sense that Hillary received her fair share of “put-‘em-on-the-spot” questions from the moderator, they might go harder on Trump for his, um, unconventional performance.
But Holt gave her a pass, while bringing up red herrings designed to keep Trump talking about stupid stuff (e.g., the “birther” business, the “for or against the Iraq invasion” theme).
I don’t know if the media will ever get this, but that lack of even-handedness just makes Hillary look more cynical, complacent, and supercilious, when she’s being cynical, complacent, and supercilious. It drives people to Trump. He comes off looking like he’s a reactive but relatively straightforward guy, being poked for effect unfairly. (And if you don’t recognize the average American guy in that profile, there’s not much I can do for you.)
2. Speaking of the “was Trump for or against the Iraq invasion” theme: the truth about that matter appears to me to be more nuanced than either side of the debate acknowledges. Trump is too reductionist about it, but so are the MSM.
There’s a reason that matters. Again, the media, and too many of the right-wing pundits, still don’t get this, but 2016 is about taking down the rhetorical framework we have all been stuck with for the last 30 years. It’s a framework in which the mainstream media get to take complex or tenuous premises and elide them into gotcha premises, and demand answers from the politicians they don’t like, framed in their terms.
Trump fought back head to head against that framework tonight, in his drawn-out battle against Holt’s elided premise about whether Trump had been for or against the Iraq invasion.
I could almost hear old-consensus pundits cringing as Trump just kept going after that one like a dog with a bone. Why was he putting so much of a focus on a seemingly minor point? Shouldn’t he just ignore it, and make positive points about what our policy on Iraq should be, now?
That’s certainly what Romney or Cruz would have done. But I don’t think Trump did himself a disservice by hanging in with that fight. A lot of voters are hearing with different ears this time around – the pundits just don’t get this – and I think there were plenty who applauded Trump for not accepting being set up by a gotcha premise.
These voters see the real problem being that the playing field is tilted against whoever is running against the establishment Democrat. They didn’t see Trump’s combativeness against Holt’s gotcha premise on Iraq as misdirected. They saw it as the battle that needs to be fought.
Think about this point. The whole line of discussion was stupid. It’s not like it would have been smarter or more enlightening to accept Holt’s premise, or Hillary’s comments, and talk about how Bush was bad and there was nothing we could do in 2011 and there needs to be more engagement and Republicans are fans of stupid power. In that mishmash, Trump didn’t say or do anything dumber than anyone else did.
3. Hillary was really overworking the condescending smirks by the end of the debate. That will hurt her. She didn’t look presidential. It reminded me of Gore in the 2000 debates.
She got away with an awful lot, such as her line about traveling to 112 countries and negotiating ceasefires and getting dissidents released, and testifying to Congress for 11 hours. That’s a lot of hooey to pack into one sentence. She hasn’t negotiated ceasefires or gotten dissidents released, but maybe that sounds kind of true sandwiched in between the things she did do. Having to testify to Congress for 11 hours about questionable activities that you’ve refused for years to be open and truthful about is hardly a badge of honor, in any case. If testifying to Congress for 11 hours fits you to be president, then we all owe John Dean an apology.
Overall, I don’t think anyone could say we heard anything from her that wasn’t warmed-over big-governmentism. Nothing but scripted boilerplate that just portends more of the same for America: a lot of failed overregulating, overspending policies.
4. I roger the concerns of people who come down on Trump for his stance on trade, his “we should have taken the oil” line about Iraq, and other things that I disagree with him on. I do think many of those folks find him too personally annoying to be objective about the impact he’s having.
In the debate tonight, Hillary looked practiced and condescending – toward her voting audience every bit as much as toward Trump. She did not look sincere, nor did she look like she really cared about any of the very few policy issues that were discussed.
Trump did look like he cared about policy. He was animated – at some times overanimated – throughout the debate. He obviously cared as much about the policy issues he expatiated on as he did about the rhetorical fights he chose to keep going.
Hillary only got animated when she was going after Trump personally, dogging him about his tax returns, and trying to get in zingers on him and demagogue him in a sleazy manner as a “racist.” She woke up when she was doing those things, looking more alert and interested than at any other time in the debate.
A whole lot of viewers out there see it with those eyes. They don’t see Hillary as reassuringly conventional, the way the old-consensus pundits do. They see her as conventionally corrupt. They see her as the problem.
5. Trump interrupted in a way we haven’t seen Republican candidates either try or get away with. We’re not used to seeing that from Republicans. Democrats are supposed to be the bad kids in that regard.
You decide how you feel about that. Hillary interrupted Trump too, but in a male-female dyad, it just doesn’t feel the same way when the female does it as when the male does.
I don’t think it’s a positive trend. But it’s not the main thing wrong with America today either. There’s way more we need to address than that.