The night went exactly as Hillary Clinton had hoped and, yes, planned (we’ll get back to the planned aspect of the night, because it turned out to be important).
She consistently baited Trump and he consistently and ruinously took the bait, spending most of the debate defending whatever perceived slight Clinton laid out for him and leaving Clinton’s sins, perceived and otherwise, mostly untouched.
Meanwhile, the debate split screen showed Trump either fuming or sniffling, scowling or eye-rolling while Clinton — in a very good piece of acting — almost looked as if she were enjoying herself. Hell, maybe she was.
It was a decidedly lopsided debate at a time when Clinton desperately needed a lopsided debate.
The pundits agreed. The polls agreed. The focus groups agreed. Even Trump’s TV surrogates had to admit it could have gone better, but what choice do you have after Clinton suggests that Trump is hiding his tax returns because he hasn’t paid any federal tax, and he replies: “That makes me smart.”
The debate turned out to be that that rare moment when a divided nation came together to speak with one voice: Trump stunk.
But the question now haunting the Clinton camp — at least until the next real round of polls — is whether it mattered. Because if the polls — now, remarkably, essentially tied — show it didn’t matter or it didn’t matter much, you have to wonder if anything would or could.
This is a test, America. It may be the final exam. Trump failed. But what will the voters do? In the latest CNN poll in Colorado, which showed Trump leading by a point, half of the many voters who said they’d vote for either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein said they might still change their minds. Did this debate do it? If not, what would?
For the let-Trump-be-Trump people, you got your man. He interrupted Clinton 25 times in the first 26 minutes — yes, people were counting — as he tried to bully her and bully moderator Lester Holt. Let’s just say it didn’t take. Clinton mostly ignored him, and Holt, especially as the evening went on, kept insisting that Trump actually answer the question, like why exactly did he keep bringing up the birth certificate issue years after the fact.
As debating tactics go, Trump didn’t seem to have any. When he hit Clinton, fairly, for her “super-predator” line, she didn’t try to explain. She went back after Trump, who didn’t seem to understand this was how you played the game. He even hit her for taking so much time to prepare. Clinton agreed she had, just as she had, she said, taken time to prepare for being president. That was the plan. Give Trump plenty of rope to show just how unprepared and unfit he is for the job — and then, when he inevitably gets himself entangled in a defense of every small slight, just pull the knot ever tighter.
In the early part of the debate, Trump clearly had a plan. He knocked Clinton’s experience as “bad” experience. He hit her on trade and her flip-flop on the “gold standard” TPP. But as the night wore on, Clinton was doing her made-for-TV shimmy while Mr. Stamina was coming undone.
It was lack of preparation or lack of skill or maybe a lack of being able to think on his feet, but Trump missed his chance to make an effective run at Clinton on emails. He missed the chance to go after her on the “basket of deplorables.” He missed his chance on Benghazi, and on Clinton’s trustworthiness. If Crooked Hillary is indeed Crooked Hillary, you didn’t know it from this debate. If she is really the liar in the race — I’ll save you the fact-checking here; Trump is an all-time champ — you couldn’t tell it from this debate. Instead, when Trump said he was “smart” for not paying taxes, Clinton reminded him what that piece of intelligence meant in the real world: Trump paying “zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.”
And so it went.
Clinton zoomed in on the myth of populist Trump by saying he was one “who rooted for the housing crisis” because he could make a killing. And from Trump: “That’s called business, by the way.”
And Clinton then reminded him that Trump’s definition of “business” was not so different from everyone else’s definition of stiffing the little guys who didn’t get paid when Trump declared bankruptcy. Trump responded, meanwhile, that maybe some of the little guys hadn’t done their work well.
And so it continued.
It’s hard to pick a low moment for Trump because there were so many. But I think we could all agree — again — that his defense of his temperament is a classic. We need to give this quote some space, and there’s a bonus in there for anyone who could actually diagram his paragraph.
“Well, I have much better judgment than she does. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know? I have a much better—she spent—let me tell you—she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an advertising—you know, they get Madison Avenue into a room, they put names—oh, temperament, let’s go after—I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament …”
Clinton was seen smiling and shaking her head. It was a moment.
Clinton saved her hardest hits for near the end. Holt asked Trump what he meant when he said Clinton didn’t have a “presidential look.” Trump changed the subject quickly to stamina, but Clinton didn’t let him off the hook, noting that Trump has had much to say about women and looks, calling them — way on the record — pigs and dogs. And then came the slam.
She brought up Alicia Machado, who was Miss Venezuela in 1996 at the then-Trump-owned Miss Universe contest. Trump, she said, called Machado “Miss Piggy” for presumably eating too much. He called her “Miss Housekeeping,” Clinton said, “because she was Latina.”
As Trump sputtered, “Where did you find this? Where did you find this? Where did you find this?”
Clinton said Machado was now a U.S. citizen and “you can bet she’s going to vote this November.”
All Trump could think to say was that Clinton had made it personal and congratulated himself for not doing so — presumably meaning Bill Clinton’s many infidelities — because Chelsea Clinton was in the audience and it wouldn’t have been right. Yes, he congratulated himself for not being contemptibly sleazy before warning that, well, he might just have to do it in Round 2.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr