Presidential Debate Recap: I’m Underleveraged and Loving It

hrc_djt_debate1The best thing about finally reaching the start of Monday’s titanically anticipated debate is that we won’t have to see Gerald Ford’s stupefying 1976 debate gaffe (the Soviets-don’t-dominate-Eastern-Europe thing) replayed another hundred times. Isn’t it grand to have your reputation for all time defined by one incoherent moment amidst decades of public service and accomplishment? Would there be such a moment in battle Trump-Clinton? Isn’t that why we tune in — to see who will fall off the balance beam in a cloud of chalk dust and humiliation?

Okay, maybe some watch because they actually want to figure out their vote. A legit poll last week found that fully one-third of likely voters say the debates are important in helping them decide, but this feels overstated. Similar pre-debate questions asked in past cycles yielded similar results, but everyone knows now (as they knew then) that the share of votes genuinely in play at this point is substantially less than a third. Granted, though, persuadables are more numerous than usual at this stage, given the hefty third-party-plus-undecided number we still see in many polls (well up in the teens compared to mid-single digits in 2012).

Monday’s 90-minute debate was supposed to be divvied into six segments of 15 minutes each with cutesy segment titles. Didn’t work out that way, but there were a few discernible segments, sort of.

Segment 1 — Achieving Prosperity

Moderator Lester Holt (a church-going Republican who, by the way, plays bass guitar and got his on-air start in country radio, because there’s always a Nashville connection, even if just imagined) opens by asking why you are the better choice than your opponent to create jobs. Clinton starts by playing the granddaughter card (today is her second birthday), then rolls tape with a litany of economic policy tropes: minimum wage, equal pay for women, profit sharing, paid family leave, affordable child care, debt free college, corporate welfare. Throws in a “Donald, it’s good to be with you” mainly to remind him that she is going to annoy the self-styled “Mr. Trump” with 90 solid minutes of calling him “Donald.” He replies with his favorite hits — jobs fleeing, China screwing us, Mexico screwing us, taxes need reducing. Name-checks three big land masses: Michigan, Ohio, and Ronald Reagan. Clinton replies with the first canned zinger of the night: “Trumped up trickle down.” TV audience at home works hard to erase image of aroused old guy with urinary leakage.

Holt asks Trump “how, specifically” will you bring back millions of jobs. Trump takes the bait: “My father gave me a very small loan.” And very small hands. Says he’d build it into a big company “with some of the greatest assets in the world.” Sure, some of them are nice overpriced hotels, but greatest assets in the world? The man needs to get out more. He references Clinton for the first time as “Secretary Clinton — is that okay? I want you to be very, very happy.” Creepy uncle alert. In reply Clinton hits Trump for the first time directly, re: the financial meltdown: “Donald is one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis.” He interjects, “That’s called business, bitch.” (Granted he said “by the way,” not “bitch,” but we all know what he meant). She veers wonkward with assertions that Trump’s tax plan would blow up the debt by $5 trillion and cost 3 million jobs, hits clean energy notes and reminds viewers that Trump thinks climate change is a hoax. Trump interjects again: “I did not say that.” Did. Trump replies by dissing solar panels — apparently his first wife cheated on him with a solar panel — and gives Michigan and Ohio another shout out.

They go deep on jobs, trade agreements, NAFTA and TPP. Trump blames Bill. Clinton defends Bill: He “did a pretty good job.” Doesn’t say what kind of job. Trump pins Clinton (accurately) on her TPP flip-flop. She replies “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.” Trump: “My penis is the biggest since Ronald Reagan.” Actually he said tax cut not penis but it doesn’t read as well that way. He accuses Clinton of advocating “regulations on top of regulations and you want to increase the regulations.” Clinton says go to my website fact checker. Trump says, yeah and her website also tells you how she’ll fight ISIS and “I don’t think Gen. Douglas MacArthur would like that.” If that’s a head scratcher, his next sentence was downright perplexing: “You’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” That bit of crazy elicits the first audible audience gasp of the night.

At this point we’re a half an hour in but still on the first 15-minute “block.” Lester Holt has apparently left the stage to play some bass guitar for the folks in the spin room.

After that ISIS thing (on the economy and jobs?) Clinton chirps that “by the end of the evening I’ll be blamed for everything that’s ever happened,” to which Trump replies, “Why not?” Clinton retorts sure, just “join the debate by saying more crazy things.” She throws in another “Trumped up trickle down” just to make sure we keep that image in our heads.

Back on topic, Trump calls the economy the “worst revival of an economy since great depression” and (channeling the macroeconomics textbook they require at Trump U) a “big fat ugly bubble” that will come crashing down. He adds that “the day Obama goes off to the golf course for the rest of his life to play golf … you are going to see some very bad things happen.” We are relieved to learn Obama will be playing golf at the golf course, though we wonder if the “very bad things” might be rising greens fees.

Lester Holt returns from gigging with the media in the spin room to bring up Trump’s tax returns: Hey Trumpface, don’t Americans have a right to know if you have conflicts of interest? Trump responds with a boast about his mega-awesome income, then tries to deflect by pivoting (more like death-defying leaping) to the fact that “We have a country that’s doing so badly, that’s being ripped off by every single country in the world.” Holt presses: You know, the IRS says you are perfectly free to release your taxes. Trump: “I will release my tax returns against my lawyers wishes when she releases her 33,000 emails.” Clinton releases 33,000 emails right then and there on the stage. Trump still doesn’t release his tax returns. Clinton laces into Trump with a prepared riff on what his taxes might show: maybe not so rich; maybe not so charitable; maybe owes millions to foreign banks; maybe pays no taxes. Trump interjects: “That makes me smart.” I do believe Trump just admitted he pays no taxes.

Invited by Holt to respond on the matter of emails, Clinton delivers a prepared, crisp 42-word rendition of “I fucked up, no excuses.” It didn’t come up again, so this was by definition effective, beyond a quick reply by Trump trying to shame Clinton with the fact that others involved have taken the Fifth — a reply he himself undermines by going back to his own taxes. In the process he makes one of the oddest biographical claims in presidential debate history: “I am very underleveraged.” He adds that he has “a great company” and “tremendous income” though he says this “not in a braggadocio way.” Nobody thought that, DT! Nothing but humility baby! You’re the best! (Now spell braggadocio.) Clinton counterpunches with the second oddest claim in presidential debate history: “I’ve met marble installers.” She is trying to make the point that Trump, in his business, stiffs contractors; adds she’s glad her late father didn’t do business with him. Trump replies no biggie, I don’t do business with dead people. Adds: “It’s all words, it’s all soundbites, I built an unbelievable company,” and as for bankruptcies, “I take advantage of the laws of the nation,” and by the way have I mentioned my fabulous new hotel in DC? Democracy collectively weeps.

We are now half-way through and Lester signals it’s time for a new segment, so let’s break up the text with a nice boldfaced header…

Segment 2 — America’s Direction

I have no idea what that segment title (announced by Lester Holt) is intended to mean, but it turns out to mean mainly matters of race. “How do you heal the divide?,” Holt inquires. Here, a well-meaning Clinton lets herself get trapped in the weeds. Opening with “We’ve got to do several things at the same time,” she comes off technocratic when some genuine pathos might have worked better. So we hear about police training and techniques, criminal justice reform, gun control and such. All lovely policy notions, but she misses an opportunity to show that she gets these issues on a deeper and more visceral level than her opponent.

But not to worry because Trump helps her out by going strident on law and order and boasting of police endorsements, sprinkled with a big dose of stop-and-friskthusiasm. Holt politely interjects that S&F was ruled unconstitutional in a New York court; Trump says oh well that was just a police-hating judge coupled with a pissant New York mayor who wouldn’t appeal, and we just have to take guns away from bad people and let’s face it there are bad people everygoddamnwhere. Or words to that effect. Clinton jumps in with more stats and wonk — background checks, terror watch lists, gun reform. Again, good stuff in the abstract, but it lets policy substitute for connection. Interestingly, Trump goes out of his way to agree with Clinton on the watch list and no-fly-list prohibitions (even as he slips in a boast that he has the support of those “very, very good people” at the NRA). Team Trump has apparently figured out that the actual audience for tonight’s debate — white female college grads in the Philly suburbs — are not down with people on terror watch lists buying weapons.

In a strange coda to this discussion, Trump boasts that he’s been all over the place visiting inner cities to see how crappy they are while you, Hillary, “decided to stay home, and that’s ok.” Tracy Flick Clinton, deploying another canned semi-zinger (not sure this one rises to full blown zinger status), points out that Trump just criticized her for doing debate prep, adding, “And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.” As zingers go I give it maybe a 6. On a scale of 1 to 50.

Lester Holt pivots to birtherism because we all want to hear more about that. So Donald, “What took you so long?” Trump goes on a rant here about Clinton aides who, he insists, started the birther thing (and you know it’s not really a debate until Sidney Blumenthal gets name-checked). In one of the more jaw-dropping segments of the evening, Trump congratulates himself for getting Obama to release the birth certificate, “Because I want to get on to defeating ISIS.” Trump adds that he did “a great service not only for the country but even for the president in getting him to produce his birth certificate.” Clinton hits back hard, pointing out that Trump basically built his political career (if you can call it that) on “his racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” that he began his real estate career as the target of a federal racial discrimination lawsuit and that “he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.” Trump responds by bragging that he settled that federal lawsuit “with no admission of guilt.” Oh yeah — just like every other company caught breaking the law! Closes the segment with an advertisement for the “tremendously successful” club he opened in Palm Beach that features “no discrimination against African- Americans, against Muslims, against anybody.” Well props to you, big fella.

Half an hour left to go and I think Lester is trying to muscle us into a new segment so we shift to…

Segment 3 — Securing America

Holt: What up with cyberattacks? Clinton gets into details on this — hacking, Russians, Putin and such — an issue she knows well, and you can see Trump on the split screen licking his lips for Round 2 of attacking Clinton for her vulnerable home server. But surprisingly he passes on that opening, electing instead to brag about being endorsed by over 200 admirals and generals, adding “I was just endorsed by ICE.” I don’t think you can actually be endorsed by a government agency, but what do I know. As for all these hacks, Trump muses that we don’t really know if it was Russia — could be China, “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Doesn’t say if it’s the hacker or the bed that weighs 400 pounds. Trump adds that “we came up with the Internet” (Al Gore tweets: not so fast, buckaroo), and throws in that he has a 10-year-old son who “has computers” and “is so good with these computers.” And yes, if you are wondering, this is a person running for president.

In an interesting strategic move, Clinton uses her rebuttal here to answer a question that wasn’t asked about defeating ISIS. Makes sense — gives her a chance to go first on that rather than waiting for him to have that opportunity. She also works in the we-got-bin-Laden thing. Drink. This triggers a Trump tirade on how Clinton and Obama created conditions for ISIS and if only we had taken the oil it wouldn’t have happened. Clinton comes back with the Donald-supported-Iraq-War provocation, which Trump labels (and I’m going to quote verbatim here because you just can’t make up syntax like this) “a mainstream media nonsense put out here because the best person in her campaign was mainstream media.” He then goes off with an extended diatribe having something to do with the fact that Sean Hannity knows the truth and if only the media would check with Sean Hannity but they won’t because he’s Sean Hannity Sean Hannity Sean Hannity somebody call Sean Hannity.

Lester Holt to Trump, with a straight face (as if that last answer didn’t already answer the question): Why is your judgment any different from hers?

Trump: I have better judgment and “I have a much better temperament than she has … my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” (which evokes audible laughter in the hall). Clinton replies with a seemingly prepared set piece in which she schools him on a series of foreign policy issues: first NATO, then the Iran deal, the nuclear weapons. It’s one of her best sequences of the night. Trump replies by asserting that nuclear armament is the world’s single greatest problem, “Not global warming, like you think and your president thinks.” Holt asks if he supports current policy on first use of nukes. Trump says he wouldn’t do a first strike (that’s a relief, I suppose), and showing admirable restraint, declines to mention how fabulous his new Trump Nagasaki Hotel is. Adds an Iran flourish with the observation that Bibi Netanyahu is “not a happy camper.” Was he ever? Clinton, in another strong moment, assures allies that we will honor mutual defense treaties (because that guy over there 15 feet to my left is scaring the bejesus out of you). She adds her intention to “stand up to bullies whether they’re abroad or at home.” I have no idea who she is referring to.

With just a few minutes left Holt decides to close with…

Segment 4 — Let’s Get Donald to Say Something Sexist

Holt invites Trump to say what he meant when he said recently that Clinton doesn’t have “the presidential look.” Trump replies “I don’t believe Hillary has the stamina.” Clinton defends her stamina in terms of extensive air travel and marathon Congressional testimony. Trump says sure, she’s experienced, but “it’s bad experience.” Clinton throws in with a quick inventory of nasty things Trump has said about women. Trump, believing that video has yet to be invented, retorts, “I never said that.” And in another one of those strangest-things-ever-uttered-in-a-debate comments, Trump adds: “I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.’ ” There is seriously nothing this man will not give himself credit for.

In a final question both are asked if they will accept the election’s outcome if they lose. Clinton says yes. Trump says he’ll make American great again and by the way there’s a thing about immigration I didn’t get to mention and ok sure what the fuck I’ll accept the outcome.

Verdict

Hillary Clinton had the lead going into the debate. Sure, plenty of Dems have been freaking out as her polling lead dwindled the last couple of weeks, but she entered the debate with a reduced but still non-zero edge in reliable poll aggregations. Last week Trump mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway was speaking of “undercover” Trump voters polls don’t catch and saying things like, “This thing is fluid in a way we don’t understand,” and “Americans love an underdog.” That’s all code for “we’re losing” — but let’s face it, clearly not by much.

Monday probably did little to change that. Clinton was sharper, saner, more substantive, less unhinged, though she did struggle at times with her tendency to lapse into wonk and smarm (but kept it in check most of the night). Trump passed the stay-upright-and-don’t-drool test so he wins on points, according to some of Fox’s finest commentators (though one realist among them did allow that “surely he’ll get better by the next one.”)

Even if you think Trump had a good night because he exceeded expectations (holy soft bigotry, Batman), the estimable Sam Wang (who aggregates polls at the Princeton Electoral Consortium) argues that exceeding expectations is an indication you will ultimately lose, not win. Using historical poll data, he shows that in seven of the last eight elections the candidate who was expected to do better in debates ultimately won the popular vote. Why? Wang says it’s because “people can tell who the stronger candidate is,” and being the candidate who exceeds expectations “means that he/she was the weaker candidate to begin with.”

Now we wait for new polls later this week to recalibrate the narrative. I suspect they edge up in Clinton’s favor, but quite modestly.

A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.

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