By Jonathon Van Maren
The big question of the night, of course, is whether Trump or Hillary won the first presidential debate. But this is a weird year in an even weirder election cycle, so normal rules don’t apply and thus speculating doesn’t go very far. After all, I thought Trump got demolished in each and every Republican primary debate, but lines like, “The wall just got ten feet higher!” were apparently poll boosters. So I’ll just wait until the polls start coming out to see who actually won, since the mind of the American electorate is a bewildering and mysterious thing. In lieu of predictions, here are a few observations.
First, the sight of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton walking out onto a presidential debate stage was profoundly depressing. These two candidates are both so truly terrible that they should actually be thankful for each other. After all, it is only because Donald Trump is the Republican nominee that the scandal-ridden Hillary has a chance at being president of the United States, and it is only because Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee that Donald J. Trump has a chance at being president of the United States.
At no point during this debate was it not excruciating to imagine Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio taking on Hillary Clinton instead.
Trump and Hillary had obviously spent a lot of time practicing their game faces. Donald Trump was obviously trying very hard to remain calm—he appeared almost serene when the debate began—and Hillary looked alternatively pleasant and positively carnivorous. A few times when Trump paused during a line—“I met someone from…Indianapolous”—I could almost hear the Trump team cheering in a back room, overjoyed that he’d delivered the line on-script.
Hillary’s robotic responses, over-scripted answers, and nearly total dependence on her notes could have ensured that the Donald won the debate, if only he had managed to keep his cool. Unfortunately, his famously thin skin got the better of him, especially when Hillary went after him on his business record, his bankruptcy filings, and the lawsuits filed against him. He insisted on talking over the moderator and addressing each accusation ad nauseam, even when extra details did nothing to exonerate him and the flush creeping up his neck betrayed his irritation and defensiveness. The fact that he spent more time defending his refusal to release his tax returns than she did addressing her compromising of national security by using unsecured email servers is a travesty. Even worse, Hillary managed to actually wax sanctimonious about cyber-security without her email server being brought up again.
Clinton’s attacks also did a good job of distracting Trump from his own attack lines. For example, Benghazi didn’t come up at all. When it was stated by the moderator that he originally supported the war in Iraq, he spent precious minutes loudly demanding to know why “nobody called Sean Hannity” to hear the real story when he could have simply pointed out that as a businessman, his opinion on the Iraq war was of little consequence, while Hillary Clinton actually voted for it. No wonder she smiled like a Cheshire cat while Trump yelled about his “great temperament.” There were a couple instances when the moderator wanted to move on and Trump appeared to look down, remember that he was supposed to deliver a zinger, and then hurriedly insert the pre-planned attack.
That being said, Hillary Clinton’s smile throughout the debate positively screamed condescension, which is quite possibly the most honest expression of emotion she has emitted in public during this campaign. It was off-putting, and I think Trump supporters and anyone else who has a tendency to view Clinton as an elitist were probably seething by the one-hour mark. Al Gore tried condescension during the 2000 presidential debate with George W. Bush, and it cost him the debate, even though all the experts agreed that Gore had won on policy. So we’ll have to wait for the polls to tell us whether or not Hillary’s demeanor hurt her at all.
Her comment on “vibrant black churches” was particularly nauseating. I assume that Hillary’s next campaign promise will be a transgender bathroom for every vibrant black church.
It’s really too bad Trump has such thin skin, because he did prove a few times that he’s up to delivering witty comebacks when the opportunity arises. When Hillary accused him of paying no taxes and he accused the politicians of being ineffective at building infrastructure, she cleverly jabbed him by insinuating that the politicians would have more money for such projects if people like Trump paid his taxes. To which Trump snorted and accurately retorted, “And you would have squandered that, too.”
He did a decent job of highlighting the fact that Hillary’s years in politics had produced little result, but throughout the debate, he leapt into the quicksand of trying to rebut accusations against himself while for the most part, Clinton cleverly sat back and let Trump punch Trump. It was a thoroughly painful thing to watch, especially, again, in light of how other Republican candidates would have performed. Thousands of Republicans probably spent the evening switching back and forth between yelling frustrated advice at the screen and weeping quietly into their brimming glasses of scotch.
All in all, Trump was Trump and Hillary just had to let him be. As one of my friends on Facebook eloquently put it: “Do we really have to do this two more times?”