Well, that was… something. A spectacle to be sure, but a debate? Some quick thoughts:
- In any other year you’d have to say that Clinton won the debate. She stuck to the traditional model of wonky, factoid-laden answers she’s used to giving. Trump was emotional, excitable and vague, with a habit of circling back to answers he’d already given, always trying to have a gotcha moment. Still, Trump only needed to not stumble too much in order to pull a draw, and I think he came close to doing so because it isn’t a normal year and a lot of voters are probably very happy with his angry outbursts.
- Trump had a very strong first fifteen minutes. He seemed very animated where Clinton was aloof, and managed to hit her very strong on her awful economic track record, her support for NAFTA and her negotiation of trade deals that were, indeed, awful for the American worker. He could not, of course, hit her from a working-class, anti-capitalist perspective, so his rant was about protectionism more than anything. I suspect, though, that this will play to his base and many more who have been hurt by the deliberate gutting of the American manufacturing base.
- Clinton again appeared stronger than Trump on the specifics of economic policy. Trump is always more potent when attacking an opponent’s positions rather than outlining his own. I didn’t see Clinton having a moment where she could really hit back on the economy because it’s clear for most that the economy hasn’t benefited the in the last few decades.
- Trump was nearly incoherent when discussing race and baldly lied about stop-and-frisk. His positioning as a law-and-order candidate seemed to be more pleading than anything else. Clinton’s response was typical liberal talking from both sides of her mouth. No real discussion of inequality as a factor in violence and the use of police as a tool to repress poor minorities.
- Hillary’s one really good line – “I prepared to be president, and that’s a good thing.” is only going to appeal to her base. There are a lot of people this year who don’t want an insider, and they are not going to vote Clinton.
- Russophobia was on full display when Lester Holt served up a softball to Clinton on the hacked/leaked DNC emails. Pretty disgusting and unfortunately Trump is correct in his rebuttal that we really don’t know who hacked the DNC. Still, no discussion of the national surveillance state or how pervasive US hacking is around the world.
- Foreign policy – I think this was an area where Clinton was going to shine to people who loved her tenure as SoS, but I’m not sure the rest of the voting public really likes or cares about how many countries she visited. Trump bumbled through an attack on her hawkish tendencies and how she supported the overthrow of Gaddafi and funneling arms into Syria, and that her vote on Iraq was part of the domino that started the crisis, but he could not carry it through to a logical or well-aimed conclusion. He repeated his argument to make NATO members pay for protection which is hard to argue with (pearl-clutching from the pundit class aside). If he’d been more coherent he could have scored real points here.
- It’s hard to tell who won this debate with the voting public; the polls will give an immediate result but we have 5 weeks to figure it out. I don’t think he did as poorly as the pundit class is going to claim, and Clinton didn’t land a knockout punch. Trump merely needed to pull a draw here to survive, and as varied as his night was, I think he did that. The trouble is, where does he go from here? It’s difficult to imagine him refining his points any more for the next two debates. Clinton is going to have a lot of time to prepare for the second debate and to push him on the issues.
- Finally, the absence of Jill Stein from the debate stage was noticeable; listening to her live-feed you got the substantive discussion of issues that was lacking in the debate. There’s a clear reason the CPD keeps Greens and Libertarians off the debate stage. Just like Nader would have wiped the floor with his opponents in 2000, 2004 and 2008, Stein would have given Trump and Clinton fits in 2016.
I think, though Trump didn’t “sniff” victory it’s hard to say that Clinton put him away. That’s why it’s likely to be more of a draw in the long-term than anything else.