I’m going to make the same mistake I always do and say that I doubt last night’s debate changed very many minds, because not much was new.
Donald Trump was obnoxious, incoherent and repeated his Iraq War lie. He tried to bully both Hillary Clinton and moderator Lester Holt, but neither of them acted intimidated. Trump mouthed or actually said “false” and/or “lies” while Clinton talked.
We’re to the point where none of that is new, so I can’t really think why it would damage his presidential prospects at this point, except that it was the new one-on-one-for-90-minutes deal so maybe it plays differently under those circumstances. It was certainly no more outrageous than some of his primary season debate performances and probably a tad less over-the-top than those. He didn’t call Clinton by an insulting nickname last night.
Hillary Clinton kept an even keel, tried a few flashes of humor, went on the attack occasionally, for example when she rattled off some of the things Trump might be hiding by his refusal to release his tax returns. Among those possibilities she mentioned that Trump might have paid no taxes, and added that in the only tax returns he ever released from previous years, he had paid no income taxes. Trump interjected, “That makes me smart.”
Audit excuse and counterattack
Trump, on the matter of hiding his tax filings, continued his excuse that he can’t release them because he is under IRS audit. He retaliated by bringing up her missing emails, but I thought he would have been better off to go after the still-secret transcripts of her highly compensated Wall Street speeches.
Based, apparently, on the quality of airports, Trump said that the United States has become “a third world country.” He also orchestrated the first-ever use, in a presidential debate, of the word “braggadocious,” saying that his company is “great,” his income is “tremendous,” and then asserting that “I say that not in a braggadocious way.”
Clinton also derided Trump’s proposal of tax breaks for businesses and on financial transactions. “I called it Trumped-up trickle down,” she said, a soundbite that had obviously been devised during debate rehearsals, and I feel confident you’ll be hearing it again.
Clinton tried to prick Trump’s self-esteem, by bringing up the fact that he was born rich. She specified that he got started with a $14 million from his father. Trump didn’t care for that, and implied that the loan amount was much smaller.
Clinton scores on policy
If you care about which candidate is able to coherently describe and defend their policy proposals, Clinton outscored Trump by a couple of orders of magnitude, although the policies were nothing new to those who follow the campaign.
I’d give Lester Holt at A- for his performance as moderator. His questions were solid, if conventional. He didn’t press hard enough for specifics when they weren’t offered. There was a lot of speculation about whether Holt would fact-check lies that were repeated. I only heard one, when he questioned Trump about his early support for the Iraq war. Trump repeated his familiar falsehood that he was against it from the beginning, to which Holt said: “The record shows otherwise.”
(On that point, by the way, Trump implied that if anyone would call up Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, Hannity would confirm that he, Trump, had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Trump did not claim to have said it on the air, which could be confirmed if it had happened, nor did he say what evidence Hannity has.)
Holt’s weak spot was the way he allowed Trump to constantly run over time. Someone should figure out how to address this matter for future debates. It just isn’t OK for one candidate to get more time and attention either by interrupting when their opponent has the floor or just by refusing to stop talking when his own time is expired. Holt admonished him several times. Trump blew him off and kept filibustering.
(If the moderators and organizers can’t bring themselves to just shut off someone’s microphone when they are hogging extra time, they should perhaps keep track of the overage and award a comparable amount of time to the violator’s opponent at the end of the debate to even things out.)
The weirdest moment
The weirdest moment, in my view, was early in the debate when Trump, in the middle of one of his early statements, decided he wanted to clear with Clinton how she would like to be referred to. It went:
Trump: Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? [turning to her and asking Clinton whether she wanted to be called “Secretary Clinton,” and when she indicated that that was fine he concluded] Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.
It was some kind of a head game, but I didn’t get what it was supposed to accomplish, Clinton didn’t fluster, and it passed quickly. Trump did not continue to be sweet to Clinton and never again inquired as to her happiness, even though it was very important to him.
The Washington Post put out an instant annotated transcript of the debate.
The New York Times offered an instant fact check.