Democrats nationally have a massive shutdown hangover, having been rolled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pretended to promise something about a vote on the DACA fix next month. Now comes the backlash from both sides: Dems on the left are furious at the party’s leadership for caving, while moderates bemoan the whole idea in the first place, of holding government hostage for a DACA fix. In the end Chuck and company folded because when you go eye to eye with the Mitchman, you discover you can’t win a staring contest with a corpse. But the real problem is that Schumer failed to foresee the obvious problem with their strategy: you can’t hold a hostage for ransom if nobody gives a shit about the ransom.
OK that’s a little strong, I don’t mean to imply that nobody cares about the dreamers. But the polls that are most frequently cited on this issue were used to misconstrue reality. We have heard from Dem and lefty talking heads for days how outrageous it is that congressional Republicans won’t come around on a DACA fix when it’s something everybody wants. This claim is typically paired with a poll result like this one from CBS News earlier this month showing 87% of Americans favor letting dreamers stay, including eight in ten Republicans (and almost nine in ten independents).
Impressive bipartisan numbers, to be sure, but strong support for a position does not equal strong motivated interest in an issue. Many Dems will say hold on, it depends who you ask: while Republicans supporting a DACA fix in large numbers aren’t willing to risk a government shutdown to accomplish it, the Democratic base was. But no, it really wasn’t. Actual support within the party for the shutdown gambit was tepid — not even 60-40 among Dems in the CBS poll, and independents were split down the middle. As recently as November a Morning Consult poll found that only 44% of Democrats saw the DACA fix as a priority (down from the low 50s a couple of months prior).
There is more than ample evidence that while almost everyone gives the pro-dreamer response to pollsters when asked about dreamers, relatively few care all that much about the larger issue in which it is embedded: immigration. By “care all that much” I mean regard it as a public policy priority. There are numerous examples but I’ll cite just a few. In a broad survey of issue priorities early last year, Pew found that fewer than a third of Democrats and Dem leaners viewed immigration as a priority. When people are asked to name the most important problems facing the country, immigration gets single-digit support in recent Gallup surveys. Before the 2016 election immigration was in the single digits as an issue priority, and after the election it remained in the single digits (various polls compiled here). And importantly, those who identify with the GOP aren’t all that fussed about it either. A POLITICO/Harvard poll last fall found fewer than half of Republicans saw limits on immigration as a very important priority, and fewer than a third of independents do.
I cite all of these data not to mount an argument that the DACA issue isn’t significant or that the actual humans behind the acronym don’t matter. Of course it is, and of course they do. My point is that mattering in human terms and mattering in policy terms are two different things, and it appears that Democrats badly stumbled with the shutdown because they seem unable to fathom the distinction. Republicans, on the other hand, did. Here’s how White House legislative affairs chief Marc Short played it on one of the Sunday shows: Democrats are willing “to deny funding to 2 million troops who are serving our country, tens of thousands of Border Patrol agents trying to protect our country, over an issue that’s not even in this bill.” The nugget of the weekend’s endlessly repeated GOP argument (because let’s face it they are so damn disciplined about that) was essentially that Democrats are holding government hostage over an irrelevancy.
Dreamers are not irrelevancies, but outside the core Trumpian base, broad public interest in immigration as a pressing high-priority concern is an irrelevancy. On that basis the Republican robo-argument was, in the context of public opinion, actually pretty sound. By Sunday even Chuck and Nancy had figured out how to read a poll; cue the cave.
The lesson in this for Democrats is not so much about policy or humanity, but (as usual) about messaging. If the party is going to “govern” (when you control nothing scare quotes are the only way to go) as though an issue like immigration matters more than anything else, it had better figure out how to mount a compelling persuasive argument for that. People know who the dreamers are, people want the dreamers to stay, but, alas, they don’t actually care enough to value the ransom over the hostage. Smart kidnappers do the math before they make the grab.
A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.
Nursing a very bad special election hangover after doing way too many shots of Ossoff Reserve (a 30-year old blend that didn’t go down well at all), Democrats convened a reunion of the circular firing squad Wednesday. Party establishment types moved quickly to assure the masses that it’s all okay, under control, nothing to see here. A D-triple-C memo with subject line “The House is in Play – Let’s March into ‘18 Together” sought gamely to make the case for optimism, insisting that GA-6 notwithstanding, “the momentum is real.” The memo offered up this visual capturing the party’s impressive yet deflating close-but-no-cigar festival in special elections this year:
Dozens of races are more competitive than these, the DCCC memo argues, and “we will take the many lessons learned from Georgia’s 6th District and apply them to the battlefield.” Lesson numero uno, apparently, is to avoid candidates like Ossoff, at least to judge by this passage describing everything that Ossoff was not:
“We need top-tier candidates to fill the remaining holes in our map. Let’s look outside of the traditional mold to keep recruiting local leaders, veterans, business owners, women, job-creators, and health professionals. Let’s take the time to find people who fit their districts, have compelling stories, and work hard to earn support from voters.”
For some perspective beyond the party establishment, I commend to Pithsters two takes on Tuesday’s latest Dem disappointment from reliable liberals with markedly diverging perspectives.
In one corner is TPM‘s venerable Josh Marshall, who writes that over-performance by Democrats in this year’s special elections signals that Democrats are positioned to take the House next year. “By any objective measure,” Marshall talks himself into believing, “these races show a Democratic party resurgent and a GOP on the ropes.” As a result, the biggest risk the Democrats face is self-immolation:
“What Democrats need to resist at all costs is the temperamental inclination to fall into spasms of self-loathing over this defeat – specifically, the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the party because of this loss.”
In the other corner is The Nation‘s D.D. Guttenplan, who who says he’s not sorry Ossoff lost because a win would have been a victory over the left, not of the left. Guttenplan assails the “Panera Bread strategy” that dominates party establishment thinking — a focus on suburban voters in swing districts (eating soup in breadbowls?) instead of expansion of the party’s base.The result is a candidate like Ossoff spewing centrist pablum:
Those messages weren’t aimed at Georgia voters; they were aimed at funders, like the supposed pragmatists at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who stiffed James Thompson in Kansas and spent a paltry $340,000 on Rob Quist’s race in Montana, but lavished millions on Ossoff’s equally doomed campaign.
In Guttenplan’s view, the Ossoff loss is nothing more than another bit of evidence that “simply being against Donald Trump isn’t enough.”
So which is it? Nothing fundamentally wrong with the party? Or everything fundamentally wrong with the party? The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, but for my money it resides closer to the ‘everything’ side. There has been no significant disruption of the Democratic party’s leadership or strategy since November, and Republicans are finding they can run against that leadership and strategy head on and notch win after win. With all due respect to Josh Marshall, whose savvy political commentary is always worth a listen, Democrats are still playing slow-pitch softball with an aging lineup in a major league ball park. Does anyone actually think that Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer delivering geriatric outrage at staged press conferences are going to lead the party back into power? Seriously?
A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.
No need to write here about how terrible the Trump/Ryan GOP health care bill is; everyone else is doing a fine job of that. And not just from the left: look instead to Avik Roy, “the most influential conservative analyst of health care” according to talk radio’s Hugh Hewitt. Writing in Forbes last week, Roy called the bill a “a recipe for adverse selection death spirals” that is destined “to make health insurance unaffordable for millions of Americans, and trap millions more in poverty.” Sounds like a winner! And Monday’s much-awaited Congressional Budget Office scoring of the bill confirms it: for those with a precarious hold on being insured the so-called American Health Care Act is an approaching tsunami of health care misery.
Yet even a bill as intellectually dishonest and morally repugnant as this has some legs because in the wake of the great blue drubbing of 2016, the Democrats apparently haven’t yet learned about how to actually do opposition. Sure, they dutifully critique the bill when asked, but it’s feels as though they’re phoning it in, letting the bill divide Republicans and collapse of its own dead weight rather than going aggressively on the attack. And I fear the CBO report licenses Dems to stay passive. That’s a mistake because this isn’t just about beating back a terrible piece of legislation; it’s about setting the stage for 2018 by making sure Trump and Congressional Republican fully own every atrocious piece of it.
One way to do that is take a page from the Republicans, who understand the power of concise branding: wrap an issue in a memorable phrase (focus-group-tested by Frank Luntz, of course), and use it incessantly. “Death tax.” “Government takeover of healthcare.” In the present moment we find Republicans with one voice talking “access” over “insurance.” This one is especially sinister in its technical accuracy because there is always access – you might need money to buy it or a ride to the emergency room to wait for it, but in literal terms access to care can’t really disappear.
And so we get inanities like this this from Office of Budget and Management director Mick Mulvaney: “Insurance is not really the end goal here. We’re choosing instead to look at what we think is more important to ordinary people: can they afford to go to the doctor.”
Democrats can’t let Republicans get away with this because insurance is most certainly the end goal here. The notion of affordable access divorced from insurance is nonsense: unless your net worth is veering up into eight figures the simple inescapable reality is that you cannot afford health care. Oh sure you might be able to pay out-of-pocket for a doctor visit and maybe splurge on an xray or two. But actual routine insurance-relevant health care is unaffordable even for the affluent. Blow out your ACL playing ball one Saturday and you’re looking at $40K for surgery and rehab. Touch of appendicitis? Hope you’ve got $50K of room on your Visa card’s credit limit. Planning on taking out a second mortgage for that $100K hip replacement?
And don’t get me started on the non-routine. Okay get me started. A few years back I serendipitously discovered a little accident-of-birth “defect” in my noggin that left untreated had a 50-50 chance of doing me in. The total cost of the fix without insurance would have been in the neighborhood of $400K. Moral of the story: Unless you have the means to engage in $400,000 of discretionary impromptu spending, you cannot afford health care. But you can afford health insurance, and not having it, barring serious wealth (not mere affluence, but genuine, trust-fund level wealth), is seriously insane.
How many people have insurance and how many stand to lose insurance is most definitely not beside the point, as the Republicans wish us to believe; it’s exactly the point — one that Democrats need to jam into the throats of Republicans and hold there until they choke on it. Paul Ryan over the weekend made the absurdist argument that “the beautiful thing about this plan that we’re proposing, it is more freedom.” Democrats need make sure everyone knows that the “freedom” of which Ryan speaks is the freedom to be trapped without affordable insurance, the freedom to get sick and go broke and die in poverty. Now that’s some dynamite freedom!
Democrats may be smugly pleased with themselves as they try to force the label “Trumpcare” into the mix, but Trumpcare is way too charitable. We didn’t actually need Monday’s CBO scoring to tell us what everyone (including, yes, the White House) already knew — that the bill’s defining quality is the likelihood it will dump millions of people back into the ranks of the uninsured. So forget Trumpcare; how about #TrumpDump? It’s (marginally) catchy, it rhymes, it’s accurate, and it will annoy the Bloviator-in-Chief every time he hears it. Try using it in a sentence. Democrats should make it every sentence.
A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.
A failing candidacy, like a rotting corpse, emits an unmistakable odor of putrefaction and decay. For the traveling carnival of hucksterism that is the Trump-Pence campaign, it was quite a pungent whiff of desperation that greeted those arriving at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center for Wednesday’s final debate. Among the many flavors of crazy down at Trumpworld these days, my favorite is Chief Enabling Officer Kellyanne Conway’s plea that we share her astonishment that Clinton isn’t doing even better than she is. In other words, the person slamming my head into a wall is feckless because I’m not bleeding more profusely.
And make no mistake, Trump is flat lining: on the afternoon of the debate the most recent ten national polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight had Clinton up 9, 7, 5, 7, 5, 6, 12, 10, 11, and 5. (I’m omitting the GOP-overweighted USC/LA Times tracker which has it a dead heat, though an even race in that poll given its tilt is also bad news for Trump.) Most battleground states are trending Clinton’s way as well, though I find Nevada particularly telling. It’s a state where Trump looked viable last month, and it’s one he has to have, but his small but consistent September lead there has now vanished, big time.
One ray of hope that the cadaver can be defibrillated emanates from the unusually large number of voters backing neither Trump nor Clinton. The Johnson-plus-Other-plus-Undecided share has waned but remains up in the 10-15 point range total – quite high for this late in the game – but there’s little evidence that Trump stands to gain. In fact, a Washington Post analysis of these voters finds they dislike Trump a whole lot more than they dislike Clinton, and overwhelmingly view Trump as unqualified. If he can’t close the gap with undecideds and he can’t entice Clinton voters to cross the chasm of sanity over to his side, then his only option is a scorched earth effort to kill turnout which is basically what his Hillary-will-destroy-every-living-thing-in-the-universe endgame is all about (though to judge by the polls not working so far).
Asked in a pre-debate interview Wednesday for the one word of advice she’d give her candidate, Kellyanne Conway (who is clearly now phoning it in) said “focus.” The format called for six 15-minute topic-segments; that’s a lot of focusing for a guy who two debates ago defined attention to women’s issues as doubling down on his view that Rosie O’Donnell is a pig. Of course, instructing Trump to be focused is kind of like telling Marsha Blackburn to be thoughtful: just not in the DNA. So what was in the DNA Wednesday in Vegas? Let’s go to the videotape…
6:50. A little over an hour before post time, Rudy Giuliani on CNN assures the viewing audience that Donald Trump has never molested his daughters. An apprehensive nation sighs in relief.
8:05. Moderator Chris Wallace kicks it off with the Supreme Court. Where do you want to see the court take the country, and how do you see constitutional interpretation? This opener yields a rather unexpected result: a pretty substantive and mostly civil exchange on a few hot-button SCOTUS issues, guided by Wallace’s genial but firm moderating hand. Clinton, as she does throughout the night, seeks to frame the question in broad conceptual terms, noting that the Supreme Court raises a central issue about the kind of country we want to have. Notes that she has “major disagreements” with her opponents on these issues. Trump describes the high court as “what it’s all about,” which is a curious departure because all this time we thought it was about him. Realizing his mistake he quickly moves to calling out Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg for having said mean things about him and later apologizing for them (which she did and she did) — ah yes, we are reassured, it is about him after all.
Some Second Amendment chatter ensues. Wallace pushes Clinton on her views of the Heller decision that created an individual right to gun ownership. She did a decent job triangulating between liking guns, hating guns, and wanting to regulate guns, though methinks saying “I live in upstate New York” as evidence of her support for the Second Amendment is somewhere between laughable and delusional. She lives in Chappaqua, in Westchester County — a place New Yorkers do not regard as genuinely “upstate” – a town with average incomes three times the national average, a negligible poverty rate, and a gaggle of resident titans of industry and entertainment. Gun totin’ frontier living this ain’t. Trump accuses Clinton of having been “very very angry” at Heller. Clinton replies that well, yes, I do get upset when toddlers go on murderous rampages (though she didn’t use quite those words). Trump uses the occasion to take an effective pot shot at Chicago’s violence in the face of tough local gun laws, and I think “wow, DJT’s on the Adderall tonight.”
They close out the SCOTUS segment on abortion. Clinton is full throated in her defense of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood. Trump, who never misses an opportunity to put his ignorance of how government works on full display, tells us that the overturning of Roe “will happen automatically” once he puts his pro-life justices on the court. When Wallace pushes them on how far the existing right goes, Clinton gives a solid explanation of difficult late-term pregnancy issues in relation to life and health of the mother. Trump, who never misses an opportunity to put grotesquery on full display, blasts Clinton for being okay with the idea that “you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother” just prior to birth. But can you rip the candidate out of the debate? He doesn’t say.
8:20. On to the second segment: immigration. Why are you right and your opponent wrong? No big surprises here, though Trump does toss off his first bit of racist provocation of the evening when he defines the cross-border drug problem as one involving “some bad hombres.” (And within minutes the internet gives birth to a hashtag and a meme.) Clinton uses the story of a girl born in the U.S. to hard working undocumented immigrant parents to remind Latinos that “you’re not going to vote for that crazy hombre over there to my left, now are you?” She decides it’s past time to get under Trump’s skin a bit, reminding him that when he met with the Mexican president and had a chance to talk up his wall, “he choked.” Trump responds that the Mexican president is “a very nice man” and by the way Hillary speaking of Mexico your husband’s NAFTA deal “was one of the worst deals of any kind signed by anybody.” He didn’t call it a “bad hombre of a deal” but we know he wanted to. Clinton jabs back with the undocumented workers Trump used to built Trump Tower. Trump then reveals what he thinks is a big dirty secret that Obama has deported huge numbers of immigrants. But wait, what? I hate Obama and I’m praising him for throwing out brown people? Does not compute. Must stop talking now.
Chris Wallace confronts Clinton with her WikiLeaks-revealed dream (shared with Brazilian banker in one of those speeches) of a hemispheric common market with open borders. Is that your dream, open borders? Her prepared riposte — that she was talking in that speech about energy — is just so much nonsense. Seemingly cognizant of the nonsense quotient of the words she is speaking, Clinton pivots on the WikiLeaks fulcrum: Hey Chris, speaking of WikiLeaks, let’s talk Russians, hacking, Putin. Trump rightfully calls her out for the pivot away from defending her open borders comments, giving him the chance for his first serious rant of the night, about Syrian refugees (who by the way might be bad hombres), radical Islamic terrorism, and the fact that Putin “has no respect for her.” Clinton’s perfect comeback: “That’s because he’d rather have a puppet as President of the United States.” Trump juvenile comeback to that: “You’re the puppet.” Which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever.
An exchange follows on whether Russians (very bad hombres) are responsible for recent cyber attacks (which every single person on the planet except Donald Trump thinks is the case). With some mention of nukes as well, Clinton decides it’s time to remind us that her opponent is kind of frightening. She tells us that when a president gives an order to launch there’s about four minutes before it happens, and that why the folks who actually do this stuff don’t trust Trump to have finger on the button. Translation (which in my imaginary perfect world she would have spoken aloud): “This guy should scare the shit out of you.” “No, you,” imaginary Trump would inevitably reply.
We’re almost halfway in and the relatively composed and subdued Trump who started the debate is growing clearly more agitated, interrupting more, and generally turning into, well, regular Trump.
8:36. Segment 3 is the economy. And impressively our fantabulous moderator Chris Wallace is only a couple of minutes off his six-topic time block schedule. That makes him the clear winner so far.
Asked to defend their economic plans, Clinton throws up a classic laundry list of issues, her entire economic platform in two minutes, complete with the requisite Bernie Sanders nod-to-her-left namecheck. My plan creates 10 million jobs, his plan will cost us 3 million jobs. On the split screen Trump is unable to suppress his “good lord I hate that women” face. When it’s Trump’s turn he calls her tax plan a disaster then goes on a tangent hopping excursion through Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, alighting eventually at NATO headquarters (“I’m a big fan”). Tacks back to the domestic economy with paeans to free trade, NAFTA, tax cutting. On the split screen Clinton is unable to suppress her “good lord that man is an imbecile” face.
The rest of this segment is pretty much a pointless fog. Trump does raise eyebrows with a comment about having just met “some high representatives of India” though he doesn’t say what they were on. While he’s pretty effective on growth and trade – effective mainly because Clinton is an easy target here – she did come armed with a couple of zingers: Only one of us has shipped jobs to Mexico and that’s Donald; and when I was fighting against the Chinese dumping steel Donald was buying that steel – he gives jobs to Chinese steelworkers not American workers. Trump says, yeah, well, I wouldn’t have if you had just used your time in government to make that not possible. This is a curious argument he’s been making lately, and he hits it a couple of times tonight: You didn’t pass laws to stop me from doing bad things, so it’s your fault I did bad things. Always nice to see yourself as morally responsible for your own actions.
This exchange elicits the 30-years-and-nothing-to-show-for-it charge Trump has been leveling in recent weeks. Clinton came prepared with a canned answer — and a pretty good one — comparing her experiences with Trump’s over the years. Trump responds that hey, I build a fab company, and you gave us ISIS. And she’s going to get rid of ISIS? “She’s going to get rid of nobody.” Actually Donald I can think of one person she is well on her way to getting rid of, but I digress.
8:52. Segment 4: Fitness! Drop and give me 20! And we go right to grabbingwomengate. So Donald, nine women say you groped them. Why would so many all in this last couple of weeks make up these stories? Trump responds with an odd back-and-forth mix of (1) those women are liars, and (2) Hillary incites violence at my rallies. Those women’s stories have been largely debunked. I assume it was her campaign that did it. When we had violence at our rallies she and Obama caused it. I didn’t even apologize to my wife because I didn’t do anything. We have riots on tape started by her. Hillary got these women to step forward. Ping. Pong.
Clinton sighs and launches into Hillary on Donald on women. (Figuratively.) “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger” and so now we know what he thinks and how he acts because “that’s who Donald is.” This is going well until she figures this is the place to drop in her already tired latest slogan “America is great because America is good.” A nation cringes. Trump responds with an oldie but goodie: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.” As some audience cackling audibly attests, it’s pretty remarkable that he can still say this with a straight face.
Wallace shifts the fitness discussion to Clinton with a rather well-formulated question about her foundation. She answers the actual question for about a sentence and then thinks she’ll just filibuster the rest of the two minutes with a live propaganda speechless about the fabulousness that is the good works of her foundation. Our moderator par excellence is having none of this, and chases her back to the question. When Trump gets his turn he calls her foundation “a criminal enterprise” (takes one to know one I always say) that takes money from “people that push gays off buildings.” Adds that he recently went to Miami’s Little Haiti and those people “hate the Clintons.” So there. An exchange on their foundations gives Clinton a chance to needle Trump over his tax returns, and point out that undocumented immigrants pay more federal income tax than he does. Here again he blames her for not changing the law that would constrain his bad behavior. I just don’t think that argument has legs. It’s not her fault that he doesn’t pay taxes.
Here Chris Wallace asks what he probably figures is a throw-away question to fill out the segment, but turns out to be the night’s big media shitstorm, asking Trump if he will honor America’s democratic tradition peaceful transition in which the loser concedes and country comes together. Trump, in full-on reality show executive producer mode, with the show stopper: “I will tell you at the time, I will keep you in suspense.” Clinton replies that this is typical — he always says things are rigged when things go badly for him. Even the Emmys! (Which I know is not rigged because the Mr. Robot guy won best actor.) A general shortcoming of Clinton’s at these things is that she often gets bogged down in wonkery, cogently arguing policy but failing to make the larger more meaningful point that would helps her audience grasp in vivid terms what is at stake. Here she overcomes that limitation: “He is talking down our democracy and I, for one, am appalled.”
There’s another odd aspect to the “rigged” business. Trump says the media (packed with bad hombres) is so dishonest and corrupt that “they poison the minds of the voters.” He adds that Clinton shouldn’t be allowed to run because she’s guilty of a very serious crime, “and in that respect I say it’s rigged.” So let me see if I have this right. The election is rigged because the person who is running against you is beating you like a drum. Now that’s a river in Egypt.
9:10 It’s on to segment 5 — the world’s hot spots (and we’re not talking Cancun here) — and we’re still almost on schedule. Chris Wallace is the God-king of moderators. So let’s talk us some ISIS.
To summarize this segment, Clinton says cautiously optimistic things about Mosul and ISIS, after which Trump goes on a couple of rant-tours through the Middle East seen though the eyes of a person who knows about as much about the Middle East as his 10-year-old kid. Mentions along the way that the Iran nuclear deal was “the stupidest deal of all time” which has us confused because about half an hour ago NAFTA was the worst deal of all time. On worst deals of all time he’s clearly a flipflopper. This is the one segment during which Clinton looks visibly pissed on the split screen while Trump is talking, but when she talks she sticks with the strategy: stay above the fray, explain her take thoughtfully (be almost intentionally boring), and let viewers take in Trump’s crazy man act without distraction.
9:25. Wallace goes to the last segment — the national debt. Normally viewership of these things drops off as time wears on, but you know that all of America hung in for that final climactic debt segment.
Trump, now basically willing to say just about anything, promises he’ll being GDP from 1% to 4% and maybe even 5 or 6%, which basically any economist of any stripe who is not institutionalized will tell you is loony. Clinton, trying to make the case that Trump has no grounded reality on these matters, informs us that back in 1987 he took out an expensive ad in The New York Times criticizing Reagan for the same thing he now criticizes Obama and Clinton for. Trump responds by throwing the all-omnipotent Saint Ronnie under the church bus: I disagree with Reagan on trade, he should have been much tougher. Reagan gets up, dusts himself off, and heads out to clear some brush.
They wrap it up on entitlements — Chris Wallace really did save the very best for last. The substance of their conversation wasn’t all that interesting, but Trump did figure out that he only has a few minutes left to remind the women of America, whose votes he clearly regards as uninteresting, of the magnitude of his own douchebaggery. While Clinton is waxing on about Social Security and Medicare premiums, at one point he leans in and interrupts with “such a nasty woman” and then a few seconds later “you’re husband disagrees with you.” Yep, that should nail down the suburban Philly female vote.
9:33. We’re about out of time, but having made it through all six segments, Wallace invites from each an impromptu one-minute closing soliloquy. Clinton gives a serviceable answer about how she is reaching out to everyone for their vote – Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Translation: I’m going to beat this mook so badly you won’t fucking believe it. Trump works in one last race-baiting riff, on the disaster that is our inner cities, where “you get shot walking to the store” and they have no education and no jobs. He closes with a declaration that we cannot take four more years of Obama, which is “what you get when you get her.” Perhaps if he spent a little less time watching Morning Joe and a little more time glancing at Obama’s resurgent approval ratings in the polls he might realize the folly of that argument beyond his narrow base.
The snap polls afterward favored Clinton as in the prior debates, which makes sense given that little changed. As before she came prepared and kept her composure. Compared to the first two debates he came a little less unprepared and did better on the composure front for much of it, and on those two bases his supplicants in spin city pronounced it the best debate performance by a member of this or any other species since the dawn of time. But there were enough rays of real Trump peeking through the clouds of restraint to remind the undecided viewer of the yawning chasms of sanity and maturity in this race. And, of course, there’s his “I’ll have to get back to you” gambit on the matter of accepting the legitimacy of the election, which gobsmacked the pundits and ruled the airwaves post-debate. It was actually pretty good sport watching Trump surrogates torturing themselves trying to explain that one away.
Trump’s task was to turn in a debate performance that would help him with a polling deficit of a magnitude that no debate at this late stage can possibly overcome. Ergo, he failed. He does have one possible path remaining, though: a WikiLeaks photo of Clinton standing over Vince Foster’s body with a gun in her hand and a smile on her face. Kind of seems like a long shot.
A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.
“I never said I’m a perfect person,” began Donald Trump’s hostage video on the matter of his Access Hollywood hot mic proud-to-be-a-celebrity-licensed-to-commit-sexual-assault pickle. Actually he has made such a claim, in the form of a relentless 16-month rodomontade of unadulterated greatness (and it turns out in his case “unadulterated” also means without adult qualities). So perhaps this admission of imperfection qualifies as an atmospheric blast of humility in the rapidly decaying orbit of Trumpworld?
Sunday’s town hall-style debate would answer that question, though signs over the weekend pointed to a Trump who was digging in, not digging out. And in any event, you know your pre-debate stage setting is less than ideal when your daughter splashes back into public view with reassurances that Dad is “not a groper” (a comment Ivanka actually made back in May after a Times story about his history of unwelcome advances, but the comment obviously has a second life now).
Meanwhile, Hillary skated in looking like the luckiest candidate in election history, with highly unfortunate new leaks about things she said behind closed doors on Wall Street overshadowed by the latest orange menace. But we knew she’d have to face the music Sunday evening: even if Trump turned out to be too erratic to coherently call her out, certainly moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz would make sure someone did.
On to the play-by-play…
8:05 The first question comes from one of the allegedly uncommitted voters: Do you feel you’re modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s yoots? (May not have actually said “yoots.”) Clinton opens with sunny optimism: “Our country is great because it is good” (a line resurrected from her July convention speech) and “I want us to heal our country and bring it together.” Trump, at first flummoxed as to how to go negative on that, allows that “I actually agree…with everything she said” but then turns on a dime to tick off all that is wretched about the country: Obamacare; trade deficits; the Iran deal; the border; law and order; inner cities. The bow he ties it all up with is expressed in an intriguing way: “My whole concept was to make American great again.” All these months I thought it was a slogan, but turns out it’s a concept! Makes complete sense now.
Anderson Cooper uses the question about modeling good behavior as a springboard to launch himself through the windshield of the Access Hollywood bus: “You bragged that you sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Trump: “No I didn’t say that at all, I don’t think you understand it.” You did, and we do. Trump soldiered on: “I’m not proud of it, but this is locker room talk” and by the way not to change the subject but “you have ISIS chopping off heads.” Doesn’t say if that’s happening in locker rooms. I’ve been in a few locker rooms in my time, but can’t recall the kind of banter that involves chirpy admissions of criminal battery. Also intriguing is the notion that it’s not a crime if it’s locker room talk. Imagining O.J. Simpson on the stand in his own defense saying “yes I told Kato Kaelin I did it, but it was locker room talk.” If the locker room is lit, you must acquit. Cooper presses: so are you saying that you did not actually grope women without consent? Trump: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” But have you ever done those things? “No I have not.” Anyone believe that?
When it’s Clinton’s turn on this she goes after him, but with more restraint than many expected: the hot mic video showcased “Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women” and in doing so revealed “exactly what he is.” She spins it into a broader prosecution of Trump’s moral failings – “targeting immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, Muslims, and others.” She sums up with the night’s second use of “we are great because we are good.” We’re only 15 minutes in, so if she keeps up the pace we’ll have to endure that tired line 12 times. Trump with a quick rejoinder: “It’s just words folks, it’s just words” (he’s got a point there) and a promise to help “the African Americans, the Latinos, the Hispanics.” The Latinos and the Hispanics! This is a man on the move.
8:17. Martha Raddatz summons us to hear another voter question, and it’s Jeff from Ohio on Facebook asking if the campaign has changed Trump. One of the moderators embellishes: When you walked off that Access Hollywood bus were you a different man, or are you the same pile of steaming boorishness today? (I may have taken a few liberties with the transcript here.) Trump repeats the locker room defense, and then takes up the matter of Bill Clinton: “There’s never been anyone in the history of politics in this nation who has been so abusive of women.” I’ll go out on a limb and venture a guess that screwing a woman you own as a slave might qualify as a tad more abusive, but you make the call. Adds that Hillary “should be ashamed of herself” for being mean to women her husband cheated on her with. Clinton replies with the it-was-great-the-first-time-but-now-getting-sort-of-tired Michelle Obama line about going high when they go low, then namechecks some campaign outrage greatest hits: the Kahns, Judge Curiel, disabled Times reporter, birtherism. (Is this going high?)
Trump replies yeah, I’ll see your Judge Curiel and raise you a Sidney Blumenthal. Then, discussing the 2008 campaign, makes an abstruse reference to the “vicious commercials” involving “Michelle Obama talking about you.” (Axelrod tweets that never happened.) Transitions into a rant about WikiLeaks, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and of course “the 33,000 emails,” landing in a pretty frightening place: “If I win, I’m going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” Clinton: good thing someone with Trump’s temperament is not in charge of the law. Trump: “Because you’d be in jail.” I’ll give him two points for the quick comeback, but deduct 10 for inability to grasp that a threat to use powers of office to jail an opponent is sort of the antithesis of functioning democracy.
8:25. Raddatz with a question for Clinton about emails: “You don’t call that extremely careless?” Clinton gives a version of the terse answer on this that she rolled out in the first debate, and adds there’s no evidence anyone hacked my server or that classified material ended up in the wrong hands. If she’s elected I hope someone will explain to her the difference between an absence of evidence and evidence of absence. Trump pounces on the email: Chelsea’s wedding, yoga pants, 33,000 deleted emails. A few sentences later says she should be ashamed of herself for deleting 39,000 emails. Apparently Clinton found a way to delete 6,000 emails in the course of about 30 seconds on a debate stage. Impressive!
At this point we’re a half hour in, and it’s pretty much been all mudslinging, all the time. Trump is varying back and forth between hinged and unhinged, but he’s giving as good as he’s getting (and when Hillary Clinton is involved, there’s plenty to give). This will go more clearly Clinton’s way if they can just climb out of the mud and hose themselves off with some policy.
8:29. Town hall voter Ken takes us there with a question on Obamacare. Clinton goes first, and while she’s talking we get the weird optic of Trump looming from behind her. It feels a bit creepy. More than a bit. Meanwhile Hillary dives head first into the Obamacare river of wonk, acknowledging its problems and justifying its features one by one. I want to make it work, she declares, and cautions that if it’s repealed as Trump proposes, all its benefits are lost. Trump goes for the subtle rebuttal: Obamacare “is a disaster, you know it, we all know it … it will never work.” Tosses in a couple of nonsensical supplementary gambits: (1) Canadians all serious have their operations here (an evidence-free assertion), and (2) “Unless you get hit by a truck you’re never going to be able to use it” (a coherence-free assertion). Anderson Cooper tries to pin Trump down on specifics of what he would do instead, Trump helpfully informed America that “you are going to have plans that are so good.” Personally, I’m in favor of those kinds of plans.
8:37. A town hall voter question on Islamophobia. Opening with his “we can’t be politically correct” shtick, Trump invents facts about the San Bernardino attack, demands that Muslims spy on each other, and wraps up with the stale critique of Obama and Clinton for their alleged refusal to say the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” After Clinton makes the useful observation that we’ve had Muslims in America since the founding of the republic, moderator Raddatz puts the ban-on-Muslims thing on the table. Trump rather crassly asserts that Captain Kahn is a hero who “would be alive today” if I were president. Segues into extreme vetting, leading Raddatz to interrupt requesting that he answer the question. “Why don’t you interrupt her?,” Trump testily asks Raddatz. “Because she answers the fucking question so I don’t fucking have to,” we pretend that Raddatz replies.
8:44. On refugees, Clinton hits Trump for advocating religious tests and manages to work in an oh by the way for the eight hundredth time he was for the Iraq war, we have it on tape. Nuh-uh, says Trump, it’s been debunked. Has not. Has too. Trump: Also she wants amnesty for everyone, and she has judgment so bad (like Bernie said) that she should never be president. We’re back in the mud.
8:47. Raddatz with an online question about newly leaked excerpts of Clinton’s paid speeches – the part where she says one needs to maintain public and private positions on complex issues. The question: is it ok for politicians to be two-faced? Clinton offers up a bizarre answer about how she was really referring to Abraham Lincoln and passage of the 13th Amendment after viewing the movie Lincoln. Wisely moves off the subject and turns the answer into a broadside against Putin and the Russian government for undertaking hacking to influence our election. Adds that “they are not doing it to get me elected” and connects it to Trump’s unreleased tax returns. Trump replies that she’s caught in a lie and she’s blaming the it on “the late great Abraham Lincoln.” It’s an effective reply because her Lincoln play seemed imbecilic. But in his inimitable style Trump undermines his little win here with a series of irrelevant tangents: “I don’t know Putin…I know nothing about Russia…I have no loans from Russia.” Then boasts that he has a “very, very great balance sheet” – the true measure of a man, I always say.
8:53. A voter question on making people pay their fair share of taxes gives Trump an opportunity to freely associate: We’re cutting taxes on the middle class, our taxes are just about the highest in the world, and Clinton will raise everybody’s taxes, massively. Trump’s assertions here being fundamentally false, Clinton celebrates the fact that “he lives in an alternative reality.” It’s pretty clear Trump doesn’t understand tax policy in anywhere near the depth one would need to have an actual conversation about it. Oh, but wait: he tells us “I understand the tax code better than anyone who’s ever run for president.” Also shares the news that “I love depreciation.” Depreciation loves you back.
9:03. A long stretch on Syria and other matters Middle East is kicked off by a voter question asking what the U.S. should do about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. Clinton gives a knowledgeable if somewhat evasive answer that pins it all on “the ambitions and the aggressiveness of Russia.” Reminds us that Russia has “decided who they want to be president and it’s not me.” Trump spews a few unhinged statements about nuclear programs, declaring that the U.S. is old and tired, while Russia “is new” and “has gone wild” with their nuclear program. When Raddatz tries to corral Trump back to the original question he lets us know that “Syria is Russia” and by the way when it comes to Aleppo, it has already fallen. (Um, no.) Clinton, asked about use of miltary force in Syria, says no ground troops, just special forces; also wants to arm the Kurds. Trump complains to the moderators that they are not shutting her up soon enough when she is answering.
9:14. A voter asks of the candidates: Do you believe you can be a devoted president to all the people in the United States. The questioner being African American, Trump reflexively goes into a “black guy asked a question so I’ll give a black-guy answer” mode, replying that sure he’ll be president of African-Americans, inner cities, Latinos. Clinton used her rebuttal to make her own case for her record of working with others, but she missed an opportunity to call Trump out for the implicit but manifest racism on display.
9:18. Cooper asks Clinton about her deplorables comment: how can you unite a country if you’ve written off tens of millions of Americans? Her effective response: “My argument is not with his supporters it’s with him.” Trump won’t leave it there; instead he levels an amazing charge: “She has tremendous hate in her heart.” Wow. Imagine what she has in her pancreas.
9:20. Cooper asks Trump about his recent 3 am tweets. Trump somewhat cleverly spins the 3 am tweet thing into a diatribe on what happened at 3 am in Benghazi, then pivots to an endorsement of Twitter, which “happens to be a modern day form of communication,” so regarding his use of it, “I’m not unproud of it.” Personally I’m not unstunned at what a muttonhead the GOP has nominated.
9:24. Clinton is asked about the Supreme Court – the most important aspect of selecting a justice. Clinton says the current court “has gone in the wrong direction.” She makes mention of good things she hopes the court will do and bad things a Trump-appointed court might do, but she misses an opportunity to draw a much sharper contrast on the implications of who names justices. Trump comes back with some Scalia worship, a slap at Clinton for planning to ditch the Second Amendment, and a request that she self-fund her campaign like him. He’s just jealous that she doesn’t need to.
9:29. A voter named Ken in a red (and I do mean red) sweater asks how energy policy can meet energy needs while minimizing job loss for fossil power workers. Trump paints an apocalyptic picture of an energy industry under siege and about to bring down the republic, then seems to suggest it will all be cool if we just get into the “clean coal” business, big time. Clinton follows with a cogent, substantive answer covering fossil fuels, renewables, and climate change, and revealing that she knows a hell of a lot more about this than he does.
9:33. And finally, one last voter question: putting the rhetoric aside, can each of you name one positive thing that you respect in the other. One person in my viewing group guessed Clinton would point to the fact that Trump loves his third wife more than the first two, but she went predictable with “he’s got nice kids” pablum (which by the way he doesn’t — see, this is why people don’t trust Hillary). And what would Trump say about her? “She doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up. … she’s a fighter.” Good lord, that was actually gracious, and certainly the better answer; didn’t see that coming. At that point they called it a night and shook hands (even though they hadn’t at the start).
“I’ve said some foolish things,” Trump said in that hostage apology video Friday, and he said some more foolish things in Sunday’s debate. The fact checkers have plenty to work with. Pollsters, on the other hand, may have less to work with, as debate #2 isn’t likely to alter the race in a meaningful way. Sure, Trump was un-unhinged enough to stop the arterial bleeding his campaign has been experiencing the last few days. But polls lag a few days, so before they capture the debate they will capture Access Hollywoodgate, which likely means it gets worse for Trump Tower before it gets better (or perhaps more accurately before it stops getting worse). Clinton wasn’t all that aggressive Sunday night, not in the manner of the first debate because she didn’t need to be. A tie goes to the runner, as the old saying goes, and she’s the one running.
A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.
If last week’s first Trump-Clinton clash was expected to draw a Super Bowl-sized TV audience approaching 100 million, Monday’s vice presidential debate was more like an NBA Final (30+ million for this year’s Cavs-Warriors game 7) or perhaps a World Series (50+ million for Giants-Royals game 7 in 2014). It surely didn’t come close to the most watched VP debate in history — Sarah Palin’s tête-à-tête with Joltin’ Joe Biden in 2008 drew 70 million viewers — more than any of the presidential debates that cycle. But even though Palin exceeded expectations that night (which is to say remained sentient and generally avoided incomprehensibility), it didn’t do much to boost the McCain-Palin ticket, just as Lloyd Bentsen’s famous verbal smackdown of Dan Quayle in 1988 didn’t stop the latter from becoming vice president (a phrase I still have trouble writing). As a talking-head political consultant on cable astutely observed the other day, why should voters care about a VP debate when they don’t actually care who their candidate chooses as a running mate?
Be that as it may, a whole lot of voters did make room in their Monday to watch the veepsters go at it, and it was worth tuning in to see how Mike Pence and Tim Kaine would work to overcome the broad polling negatives of their ticket overlords. For Pence, a severely conservative red-state governor, job one was to hijack the news cycle away from Trump’s seven-day running media shit show. Pence’s larger mission was to show himself to the country as a sane and credible DJT alter ego, equipped to spend four years standing alongside Trump poised to grab the Donald’s fleshy arm as it reaches for the big red button. (And there is a big red button.) Kaine’s task was narrower: remind viewers as often as possible that the race at the top of the ticket pits crazy against not crazy, and frame Hillary Clinton as the political second coming of Mother Teresa. Piece of cake. Whatever their shortcomings as prosaic middle-aged white men who most Americans couldn’t pick out of a lineup, Pence and Kaine are seasoned pros who believe in both policy and preparation, so the expectation going in (as with Paul Ryan and Joe Biden four years ago) was for a debate heavier on substance and lighter on beauty pageant relitigation than last week’s cage match.
So how’d it go?
7:20. Forty minutes before go time, MSNBC asks First Lady of Indiana Karen Pence what advice she gave her husband. (BB wonders why he wasn’t asked that 13 months ago.) She seems like a lovely person (we first ladies have to stick together), at least until she offers that Donald Trump is “such a gentleman.”
7:40. Twenty minutes before the start, a commentator on Fox sums up Pence’s goal as reassuring the country “that Trump’s not a wild-eyed screwball who hates fat chicks.” Now that’s pith. And by the way if that was the mission it wasn’t accomplished, since Pence spent the night artfully dodging pretty much everything Trump.
8:05. Moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS opened with a question about what skills and qualities each has to step into the big role should the need arise. Kaine defines his role as being Clinton’s right hand person. “We trust her with the most important thing in our life” — their son in the military — while the prospect of Trump “scares us to death.” Gauntlet duly thrown down. Pence opens with Clinton’s “war on coal.” Base duly nodded to.
And that pretty much summed up the debate, five minutes in. Kaine spent 90 minutes, yes with way too many interruptions, trying to persuade us that Trump is scary, and Pence spent 90 minutes (mostly successfully) ignoring Kaine’s interruptions, trying to make a basic conservative case for a GOP ticket that doesn’t actually exist (or maybe in his mind will exist in 2020 with his name at the top).
Quijano asks Kaine why so many distrust Clinton. Kaine quickly pivots to birtherism – “I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven selfish me-first style of Donald Trump.” Pence comes back with “you and Hillary Clinton would know about an insult-driven campaign.” Pivots to Syria and Russia. Kaine interjects your guy loves himself some Putin. Pence goes back to Trump’s “extraordinary business acumen.” Kaine calls Pence “Donald Trump’s apprentice.” Kaine is in serious interrupt mode. Throws a big pile of Clinton foreign policy at Pence, who is not impressed.
8:16. Quijano says let’s turn to the economy and specifically debt. Pence says it’s “atrocious” that the Obama administration has doubled the national debt. Boasts that “I come from a state that works” and says Kaine as governor “left his state about $2 billion in the whole.” “You tried to raise taxes here in Virginia and you were not successful.” Note to Pence: you are not running for governor of Virginia. Second mention of “war on coal.” To his credit Pence is doing a pretty good job pressing the Republican critique of Obama’s economy. Kaine replies that it’s a choice between a “you’re hired president” and a “you’re fired president.” Catchy but confusing. At some point you do have to actively defend the economy as the candidate running for a third term, which Kaine doesn’t really do.
8:21. Quijano dives into Trump’s taxes. “Does that seem fair to you?” Pence goes back to prior discussion, accusing Clinton-Kaine of advocating “more taxes…more spending, more deficits, more debt, more government.” He adds, “You can roll out the numbers … but this economy is struggling.” Quijano tries to pull Pence back into the fact that Trump pays as little taxes as possible. Pence says the tax returns show “he faced some pretty tough times” and explains that Trump “used the tax code just the way it’s supposed to be used, and he did it brilliantly.” Kaine: How do you know that since you haven’t seen his taxes? It’s a good point, but it’s inside baseball.
As the candidates continue to interrupt each other, moderator Quijano states the obvious : “The people at home cannot understand you when you speak over each other.” They continue to speak over each other.
8:25. Quijano moves to social security. How will you protect it against cuts? Kaine gives a suitably wonky answer focusing on payroll taxes. Pence, fulfilling everyone’s prediction that he would poach Ronald Reagan: “There they go again.” Says Trump will cut taxes to meet obligations of Social Security. This actually makes little sense, and Kaine again interrupts to try to rebut, but gets nowhere. Turns out you cannot actually make a focused argument through interruption.
8:28. Quijano, who is pretty clearly ill-equipped to control this interrupt-fest, does an about face to law enforcement and race relations. She is apparently determined to make sure that all nine planned “segments” intended in the format get covered. She poses a question: Do we ask too much of police officers? This sparks a genuinely interesting conversation. Kaine, pulling in his experience as a city mayor and governor, says community policing is the key. “That model still works but there are some other models that don’t work.” Namely: Trump and stop-and-frisk. He also works in guns — merges the facts of his (a) being a gun owner and (b) being governor when Virginia Tech happened. This is an effective answer. Pence, also effective, comes back “at the risk of agreeing with you” with an endorsement of community policing. He then goes after “the bad mouthing that comes from people who seize upon tragedy in the wake of police shootings… to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias and institutional racism and that really has got to stop.”
This could have led to a deeper substantive exchange in the hands of a more adept moderator, but Kaine is permitted to seize an opportunity to hijack the conversation by going negative on Trump — things he says about Mexicans and women and John McCain as POW and by the way he says African-Americans are “living in hell” and by the way birtherism. Kaine launches another of his numerous “defend your presidential nominee” salvos: “I cannot believe that Gov. Pence will defend the insult driven campaign that Donald Trump has run.” Pence refuses to be baited, lets it go, so Quijano moves on to…
8:38. Immigration. Pence lays out the brief against Clinton-Kaine on immigration in a few short phrases and says “Donald Trump has a plan.” Returns to the “avalanche of insults” coming from Kaine: “Did you just hear that? Ours is an insult driven campaign?” Basket of deplorables! Irredeemables! Okay we knew this was coming and Pence picked an apt moment to fling it. (Quijano is now policing the interruptions more stridently.) Kaine: “You will look in vain” waiting for Donald Trump to apologize for anything he has said. Then explains Clinton’s immigration policy. Kaine is pretty good once he gets rolling at shifting between attacks and policy and back to attacks and back to policy again. “They want to go house to house, school to school, business to business, and kick out 16 million people” and (yet again challenging Pence to defend Trump) “I cannot believe that Gov. Pence would support this.” After an exchange on ICE and mass deportation, Kaine again tries to bait Pence, this time with the Judge Curiel thing: “I can’t imagine you could defend that.” Again Pence doesn’t take the bait.
8:46. Quijano moves to national security and asks if the world is a safer place. Kaine touts some of Clinton’s experience and then hits the elephant head on: “Here’s her plan to defeat ISIL.” Throws out a few bullet points, then tosses in a canned line about how Trump “can’t start a Twitter war with Miss Universe without shooting himself in the foot.” Polishes it off with a broadside on Trump’s foibles on foreign policy — allies, nukes, all of it. Pence comes back with a quip: “Did you work on that a long time because that had a lot of really creative lines in it?” While this is lame his next gambit is solid: “America is less safe today than it was the day that Barack Obama because president … it’s absolutely inarguable.” This may or may not be “inarguable” but declarative statements of doom do tend to land. And Pence knows you can never go wrong by misusing the word “literally,” as in: Because Clinton failed to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq, ISIS was able to be “literally conjured up out of the desert.”
8:51. A worthwhile exchange on the merits of the Iran deal ensues, but moderator Quijano fails to see the opportunity to drive that conversation further, moving instead to domestic terrorism. She asks, what tools would you use to prevent home-grown attacks? Pence absurdly answers it in terms of reforming the immigration system. Kaine is better here, landing a blow: “We want to keep people out if they’re dangerous, Donald Trump said keep them out if they’re Muslim.” Pence, who has in the past publicly disagreed with Trump on this, prudently sticks to his unflappability mode and lets it pass.
8:54. Quijano turns us to intelligence and cyberwarfare. Pence: “Cyberwarfare is the new warfare of the asymmetrical enemies that we face in this country.” Nobody knows what that actually means. Pence sees a key pivot-attack opportunity: Hey everyone, let’s not forget that Hillary had a private server! One that very bad peeps might have hacked! Quijano interrupts him to move on to Syria, which seems actually not quite fair. Let the man re-prosecute Hillary’s emails for crying out loud. Kaine sees where this is going and jumps in to briefly defend her on emails. Quijano with the assist: “we are moving on now.” If Pence wanted to push the email thing further this was a lost opportunity.
8:58. Quijano, on Syria, formulates the question well: “Does the U.S. have a responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass casualties on this scale?” Pence accuses Clinton of prioritizing a “Russian reset” as her top priority as Secretary of State, which led the Russians to invade Ukraine, and now Russia’s “small and bullying leader” Putin is dictating terms to the U.S. This might have been effective if it weren’t too damn hawkish: “We have got to begin to lean into this with strong, broad-shouldered American leadership … The provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.” Yikes. It would be nice if Kaine would call out this intention to turn U.S. foreign policy into a festival of rampant military adventurism, but Kaine is silent, going instead after Trump‘s imagined business dealings with Russian oligarchs.
9:05. Having moved onto nukes, Kaine channels Ronald Reagan on proliferation: “some fool” will wreak havoc, and that’s who Gov. Pence is running with. To everyone’s surprise, Pence denies that he is running on a ticket with a guy bent on nuclear devastation. Awaiting fact checking.
9:07. Kaine, who has spent the debate identifying crazy Trump statements and policies that Pence refuses to get behind, decides it’s time to go into sum-it-up mode: six times I’ve asked him to defend his presidential candidate and he can’t. Pence replies that he’d be happy to answer answer them one by one. This seems like a fun and worthwhile path to go down, but yet again our overly clock-focused moderator rebuffs us and says it’s time to talk about…
9:08. Russia. Kaine makes the point that Trump is sleeping with Vladimir. Connects it to Trump’s tax returns. Pence replies with a string of classic non-denial denials: Well, thanks! Just trying to keep up with the insult-driven campaign! This is the alternative universe of Washington! Quijano asks Pence why Putin would respect a Trump administration. He goes back to the militaristic well: “We are going to rebuild our military.” I am pretty sure if Trump is elected we will see World War III by his first midterm election.
9:15 North Korea. What specific steps would you take to prevent NK from developing a missile capable of reaching the US? Pence, going in a novel direction: “we need to make a commitment to rebuilding our military.” Then shows his political chops by somehow turning a question on North Korea into a broadside (and a pretty effective one) against the Clinton Foundation. Kaine mounts a defense, and takes a few shots at Trump’s foundation and (of course, once more with feeling) his tax returns.
9:23. Moderator Quijano pulls out a big philosophical question: Can you discuss a time when you struggled to reconcile personal faith with a public policy position? Yes they can but you know what? Who gives a damn — we live in a secular democracy so keep it to yourself, guys. Kaine does find an excuse to take one more dig at Trump’s attitude toward Mexicans. Pence accuses Kaine of having “whipped out that Mexican thing again” (without first saying “pardon me while I whip this out”). Viewers at home collectively wince.
9:32. A final question about what each would do to reunify the country. Each assures us he would unify the country. Glad to hear it. We all feel preemptively unified. Over and out.
One way to frame the campaign’s home stretch is to think about how Donald Trump expands his support beyond what seems like a ceiling of around 40%. This is perhaps how we should think about the VP debate: was Mike Pence able to bring new voters to Trump? Answer: not so much. Kaine wasn’t able to bring new voters to his ticket either, but he didn’t really need to. The news cycle narrative will be that Pence did well because he was (a) generally coherent, (b) not Trump, and (c) a little less annoyingly interruptive than Kaine (who surprisingly was not coached into figuring out how to look into the camera while speaking). But Kaine did manage to make sure that every bad thing we already know about Trump got another airing (or two or three), and Pence spent 90 minutes basically denying the existence of everything Trump has said and stood for for over a year. In terms of the numerical dynamics of the race it probably adds up to a whole lot of nothing — another VP debate in the books! — which is to say tune in Sunday for the real thing: Trump/Clinton round 2 in St. Lou.
A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.
The 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.
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.