WASHINGTON, September 27, 2016 — Clump, the Brangelina of America’s political discontent, took to a Hofstra University stage to debate on Monday. The spectacle was not edifying.
The CNN presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was not the show Trump’s supporters hoped to see. Trump did not exceed expectations, and Clinton didn’t collapse into a pile of rotting flesh.
Debate moderator Lester Holt did live down to their expectations. He delivered feeble attempts to control the event with some assists to Clinton before Trump began to run over him roughshod. That was a signal to Clinton to join in treating Holt like a doormat.
From that point, Holt barely rose above the level of background irritation.
Most pundits gave the win to Clinton; the rest probably took part in one of the debate drinking games, ending up under the table before Trump finally imploded.
Trump started well, exercising some self restraint, but after the first half hour, the strain was too much for him and he reverted to form. His comments about Clinton’s stamina were self-mockery from a man who couldn’t sustain adult decorum for more than 30 minutes.
His handlers should remind him that barring a disaster, a presidency lasts for at least four years.
The first half hour saw most of what passed for serious policy discussion. The candidates clashed on taxes, international trade and getting America back to work, operating generally within format constraints. Neither was original or brilliant on these subjects, both resorting to well-honed formulas, but Trump remained calm, and Clinton seemed put off balance by that unusual state of affairs.
Trump argued for lower tax rates, while Clinton argued for making the rich pay more. She claimed that Trump’s plan, “Trumped-up trickle-down,” would increase the debt by at least $5 trillion; independent analysts put the cost at between 5 and 10 trillion.
They agreed that there should be a way to get corporations to repatriate their foreign profits, that trade kills jobs, and that being put on a watch- or no-fly list should disqualify you from owning a gun. Neither showed a strong understanding of how trade works or what constitutes a “good” trade agreement. Neither showed much appreciation for the Second Amendment or the capacity for mischief involving federal watch-lists. Trump did admit that legal protections for people put on those lists would be a good idea.
The remaining hour of the debate must have been horrific for any Trump supporters who thought their candidate capable of sustained presidential decorum. He interrupted, chanted “not true, not true,” pulled numbers out of the air, defended not paying taxes and stiffing contractors as smart business, and managed to sound petulant, addled and manic all at once. Clinton needled him into incoherence.
It was gruesome.
Online polls gave the victory to Trump. Trump supporters on social media seemed to think that he held his own. A more scientific CNN poll released today gave the victory to Clinton, 62 percent of those who watched declaring her the victor. Only 27 percent thought Trump did better.
These results are similar to those achieved by Mitt Romney in his first debate with President Obama, yet Romney lost that contest. He stalled in later debates, while Obama substantially improved.
Voters who expect an Obama-type rebound from Trump will be disappointed. Obama lost that first debate with Romney, but at no time did he seem as abysmally unprepared as Trump did. Trump’s game plan was clearly to wait for Clinton to stumble onto the stage, cough out her lungs and die.
When she didn’t oblige, he had nothing else up his sleeve.
On the plus side for Trump, this debate probably had little impact on his supporters. Some of them recognize his shortcomings, but a Clinton presidency remains too ghastly a prospect to let them vote for her. For many, however, the things that move pundits and coastal elites are of little or no importance.
Those elites are generally well and stably employed, affluent, and unlikely to get within 30,000 feet—vertically—of a rust-belt factory or a coal mine. They are concerned with climate change as the most pressing threat to humanity, not understanding that people struggling to pay bills or despairing of affording college for their kids place climate change far down on their list of concerns.
Clinton and her supporters are furious that she’s not 50 points ahead of Trump. She plans, after all, to make overturning Citizens United a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. She knows where Aleppo is and can name the components of the nuclear triad.
She supports family leave and a compassionate immigration policy. She’s been to more countries that Bill’s old girlfriends have teeth. How can she not be well ahead?
People worried about violence don’t care about Citizens United. Family leave is only important if you expect to keep your job when it drives up labor costs. If the president has a plan to protect your job from immigrants, you’ll let him rely on his generals to know about the triad and Aleppo.
Clinton’s supporters and media pundits come from the same social class. It’s a class that believed, before Trump, that opposition to ACA was restricted to a vocal fringe of right-wingers. They believed that only a fringe of racists and homophobes really objected to more open immigration and same-sex marriage. Trump’s support had to come from just a narrow class of “deplorables.”
It does not. Trump’s support is broader than Clinton believes, and angrier. It isn’t irrational, but it is emotional, and it isn’t looking at Clinton’s virtues in the same way that her supporters do.
Clinton increased her odds of victory last night. She will probably be our next president. She will take the oath of office to lead a country whose citizens in large part loath or distrust her. America faces a long, bleak season of political warfare unless she figures out how to bridge the divide between her and Trump’s army of deplorables.
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