By Emily Chicklis
This past Monday, a determined collection of both policy wonks and lay-citizens gathered before their television sets like a caricature of a family in a 1950s sitcom. Together they formed a network all across the U.S., and armed with popcorn, Twitter, and possibly an alcoholic libation or two (or three), they all settled in to watch the political event of the year: the first presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton (former First Lady, senator, and Secretary of State) and Republican Donald Trump (real estate mogul and former reality TV show host).
The event came down to a match-up between style and substance, and Clinton’s substance absolutely won the day.
Clinton took the stage Monday night with a practiced, composed attitude. NBC’s split-screen view offered the striking juxtaposition of her cool demeanor against that of Trump, who appeared to have a case of the sniffles (divine retribution for his attacks on Clinton’s health? Not for me to say, of course). She was especially prepared for questions concerning foreign policy, and also had a few solid zingers that effectively cut through Trump’s bravado and drew applause from the crowd: after Trump accused her of staying at home while he travelled to constituents, Clinton responded that she was not only preparing for the debate, she was “preparing to be president.”
As the night wore on—and wore on it did, for Mr. Trump—it became clear that only one candidate had a solid position on the issues. Whatever questions Trump did not dodge he addressed in the usual vague, grade-schooler language, including such classic gems as, “I’m going to cut taxes bigly,” and “We have to do a much better job at keeping our jobs.” What a novel concept.
There was very little Trump could have done wrong in this debate. He is a fringe candidate gone actual contender, and as such he seems immune to any traditional act of political suicide. He has already made every offensive remark in the books, only to see his poll numbers go up, and his constituents seem quite happy with sweeping promises of something different than “four more years of Obama” in place of unambiguous policy stances.
Had Trump properly prepared for this debate—or hadn’t gotten so frazzled by Clinton’s jokes at his expense—he could easily have had his opponent on the ropes. Her connections to Wall Street, the “basket of deplorables”…there’s really quite a bit of material to work with. His strongest hits were accusations that Clinton played a key role in allowing the formation of ISIS (referring to the vacuum of power in Iraq that resulted from a withdrawal plan approved by Bush Jr.) and raising the issue of tampering with Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign (a fair point—just ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz). But Clinton parried both, and Trump failed to follow through.
Nevertheless, he still insisted that in a race that has placed much focus on character, he has “a winning temperament.” Clinton laughed openly before replying in the voice of an exasperated but still mildly amused schoolteacher addressing the class clown in the back: “A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes.”
Mr. Trump does have a significant place in this election. Like Bernie Sanders and his grassroots campaign, Trump is tapping into a deep-seated anger among the American public, and Secretary Clinton would do well to recognize that. That being said, Clinton put up a very strong argument for the status quo just by keeping her cool as Trump threw a temper tantrum on stage.
Trump spent the day after the debate practicing his own personal form of damage control: namely, insinuating that he had been given a faulty microphone and threatening to use former President Bill Clinton’s affairs against his opponent because she has just been so “mean” to him. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, had this to say: “Donald Trump took command of the stage, and I think the American people saw his leadership qualities.”
They sure did, Mr. Pence. They sure did.