The first presidential debate of 2016 is now history with neither candidate emerging as what anyone might term a “winner.” Perhaps the best summary was provided the morning after by Politico’s Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, who wrote in the PoliticoPlaybook “Donald Trump didn’t throw up on his shoes. But Hillary Clinton had the far better night.”
Indeed, initial polling indicated that Clinton, having presumably engaged in extensive debate preparation beforehand, made a somewhat better impression than Trump – CNN logged the figure at roughly 64% having thought Clinton won.
But it was, at best, a hollow victory. Neither did what they needed to do. Trump, it is fair to say, did little to reassure onlookers that he has a firm command of the nuance and sophistication required of the highest office of the land. Yet anyone would be hard-pressed to suggest that Mrs. Clinton did anything, anything at all, to improve on her likability. One gets the impression that most viewers who subjected themselves to the show came away with a lingering dread of having to put up with either one for the next four years.
But more importantly, from a practical, if not political, standpoint, are the shortcomings evident in the Democratic candidate’s policy ideas. Clinton did herself no favors in failing to offer any policy proposals that could not be found in George McGovern’s playbook a generation ago. Her economic offerings, in particular, are pure sophistry. And yet Trump, distracted as he appeared to be in letting voters know how great his autobiography will be, utterly failed to seize on any of the opportunities presented him.
Clinton came out of the gate espousing the myths of minimum wage and pay equity. She piled on a bit later with the fantasy of how the housing crisis occurred, somehow citing tax cuts enacted under President Bush and a lack of government micro-management of the financial sector as the culprits. Despite several attempts to portray himself as the economic-savvy business candidate (which he needs to do), Trump had no response to any of it. Forget a principled, free-market counter-thrust to the myths pushed by Clinton. Trump couldn’t even manage a hard nosed, charts and graphs, business numbers rebuttal to comments which were begging for just such a response.
The dismal science certainly had a dismal night.
But those, sadly, were not the only unfired shots of the battle. Clinton’s greatest weaknesses are the perception (well-earned) of inherent dishonesty, and her lousy track record in foreign policy. She led with the chin on both, and Trump did not even try to connect.
Her vulnerability during the discussion of cyber security, for instance, needs no explanation; granted, it is inconceivable that Clinton would not have been prepared to receive such questions, so Trump may have been instructed to steer clear. But so what if she was drilled on the issue? The more Trump can remind voters of the cavalier (not to say criminal) manner in which Clinton chose to handle the nation’s electronic business, the better for him.
What it comes down to is this: the first debate changed very little, perhaps nothing. Clinton prevailed, but did so against an opponent she was widely expected to prevail against – and she didn’t do so by much. Trump’s performance can be summarized as one of missed opportunities. There were, here and there, moments where Trump did marginally well – he did, for instance, almost manage to box Clinton in on trade policy, although he is self-limited by positioning himself to the left of Clinton on the issue. And one may grant him a little latitude in recognizing that his continued weakness on the details of foreign policy rob him of what would otherwise be potent rhetorical bullets. Mostly, though, his failures to capitalize were unforgivable.
But what does that say about the Democratic candidate? That her best quality is her opponent’s failure to pounce on her litany of poor qualities? Meanwhile, the Republican candidate, if he wishes to lead the Free World, had better prepare himself enough to come up with a grammatically acceptable replacement for “bigly.” Clinton said a lot of stupid things, and Trump said a lot of things stupidly.
Call it a win for Clinton if you like; but neither accomplished what they needed to. And the viewing public can be forgiven if, ahead of the second debate, they quietly pray (safely outside the view of the ACLU) for one or the other to throw up on their shoes.