Donald Trump achieved the unthinkable at the first presidential debate. He was boring.
The debate was highly anticipated given the nearly two-month lag since the national conventions. And the polls had basically come to a draw, with Donald Trump gaining significant ground in recent weeks as Hillary’s 9/11 “overheating” episode took its effect. While no one really has a meaningful lead, Trump had the momentum going into the night.
The ultimate structure of the debate itself also seemed to favor Trump. The moderator, Lester Holt, largely asked both candidates to weigh in on the same questions, limiting the amount of perceived or actual bias. And more often than not, Holt allowed them to just respond to each other at length with limited intervention. Trump’s campaign rose significantly on his extemporaneous insults and attacks on moderators and fellow primary contenders, while Clinton is known for being a polished, but highly scripted politician. Given this, Trump seems to have been perfectly suited for the contest.
And yet, the whole affair proved to be a tremendous disappointment.
The problem is that the debate focused significantly on policy. Because both candidates have pretty awful positions on most things, this was bound to be uninteresting. We could not realistically hope for many useful political ideas to be communicated last night, and indeed, few emerged.
Trump proved that he could move beyond the sound bite to give rambling two-minute responses that appear to be about policy without saying much of anything. But these were never inspired, frequently irrelevant to the question asked, and even more disjointed than normal. They bore distinct signs that Trump had been getting coached on typical Republican talking points, and this was a tragedy. Trump’s previous appeal to many, in addition to his embellishment, has been his willingness to say things a Republican strategist would never even think–like the idea George W. Bush knew that the pretense of the Iraq War was false. Last night, with few exceptions, Trump stuck with themes you could hear come of out of any other typical Republican. It may have made him more presidential I suppose, but it did so at the cost of making him boring.
Perhaps another tactic employed in the aim of seeming presidential was evident from Trump’s limited attacks. Clinton criticized Trump directly on many different issues, but Trump didn’t retaliate in the way we’ve grown accustomed to. He appeared to have a few planned attacks–on trade policy, Hillary’s “super-predator” remarks about black people back in the day, and the Clinton Campaign’s promotion of the foreign Obama angle back in 2008. But beyond this, Trump kept the extemporaneous attacks to a minimum.
Clinton, for her part, did not offer too many surprises. She was generally the more coherent of the two, even if she was coherently explaining deeply flawed policies. It’s difficult to imagine any of her prepared one-liners will gain much traction, like “trumped-up trickle-down economics”. She appeared, and almost certainly is, the more knowledgeable of the two on domestic policy and foreign policy alike. However, she also appeared very condescending in the process–openly laughing after Trump’s responses on multiple occasions.
The personal dynamic that seemed to emerge on stage was that between a rebellious student (Trump) and the belittling teacher that no one likes (Clinton). Trump filled this role by routinely interjecting in Clinton’s time with short bursts of indignation and dissent. Meanwhile, Clinton rarely managed to mask her open contempt. Some examples of the latter after Trump finished a response.
You know, just join the debate and say more crazy things.
Well, listen to what you just heard.
See what I mean? In some ways, the Hillary Clinton on the debate stage personified the judgmental tone that leading media outlets have applied to the Trump campaign throughout. People that are already in the Clinton camp, surely ate it up. It’s not clear how the average undecided voter will respond to it.
Finally, we’ll close by noting what may be the most depressing aspect of all. Nearly every time the candidates criticized their opponent for a bad position, it was followed up with a position that was as bad or worse. A non-exhaustive list follows:
- Trump criticizes Clinton’s hypocrisy on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she initially supported. Of course, Trump’s own position is that freer trade is generally bad, rather than saying just the TPP is bad.
- Clinton and the moderator push back on the Trump’s support for the unconstitutional policy of stop-and-frisk, which typically involves racial profiling, against African Americans. Shortly thereafter, Clinton supported banning gun sales to people on the no-fly list–which is almost certainly based on profiling Arabs and Muslims and involves no due process.
- Trump criticizes Clinton on foreign policy and blames her for ISIS’s existence. Good so far. But how’d she do it? Because she and Obama pulled the troops out of Iraq too soon, which Clinton correctly noted was actually negotiated under Bush. Of course, a more important factor in ISIS’s creation was the US and its allies arming the radical opposition in Syria.
- Clinton feigns concern over the national debt and how much Trump would increase it. She then shortly announces her intention of making college debt-free, among other very costly proposals. I guess those wouldn’t add to the debt somehow.
- Trump briefly criticizes Clinton’s “cavalier” nature about Russia in response to a question on nuclear weapons. But instead of driving the point home, he makes the point that Russia’s arsenal is better because ours is too old, hinting at support for a modernization plan. Even worse, he goes on to criticize the Iran Deal, which is one of the few positive achievements of the Obama Administration, and which Hillary isn’t really responsible for anyways. (It only happened after a considerably less hawkish Secretary of State took over.)
You get the idea. The presidential race to the bottom was in top gear last night, but it remains to be seen who won.
On the plus side, it’s our opinion that both of these candidates will unintentionally offer a substantial upside. In case you need a shot of hope after watching last night’s proceedings, we’d recommend the case for political optimism as an antidote. Here’s part 1 and part 2.