It might have been the most commented-on 90 minutes in history, measured by pundit poundage and volume of social media. Now it’s over. The skies have not opened and the seas have not parted.
And we have no idea how wobbly and undecided voters responded and even less idea how they’ll respond on Nov. 8.
And we have no idea whether the debate punctured the Rorschach Bubble, the intense habit of humans to see what they want to see.
But we do know that the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was less of a spectacle than it could have been. That has to be good for something, perhaps the fraying dignity of our electoral process. Perhaps.
There weren’t any knockout punches or lethal gaffes. There weren’t any killer quips that will live on for the ages. It is likely the precedent of history will hold and this debate will not greatly change the course of the election.
If that is the case, then the debate favored Hillary Clinton simply because she had a slight lead going into the battle and she wasn’t badly wounded.
Put against the common expectations of what the two candidates needed to do in the debate, there is a strong case that Hillary Clinton eked out a win.
Job Number One for Trump was supposed to be acting presidential (as if the ability to give such a performance means anything, but that is another story). But at several points Clinton baited Trump into interruptions, snarls, gibberish and other un-presidential behaviors.
Job Number One for Clinton was to remain composed and project an aura of experience and deep knowledge without coming off as icy or nagging. She probably will be judged to have succeeded. Her second priority, according to conventional analysis, was to appear more warm or cuddly than she usually does. The jury is out on that, but she certainly had some good, light comebacks and put-downs.
Trump seemed to do a good job of tagging Clinton just another partisan hack, a purveyor of politics-as-usual. At several points after Clinton gave detailed, policy-laden answers, Trump essentially said, “Yada, yada, yada – all talk, no action.” It may have rung true to many. On the other hand, he showed no more mastery of the issues than he ever has and didn’t curb his promiscuous use of urban myths and outright lies.
The asymmetry of the contest was stunning. The specificity, accuracy and depth of Clinton’s answers eclipsed Trump’s, no question. But Trump delivered the outsider punches that have gotten him this far. Clinton came for a trial and performed like a lawyer. Trump came for a prizefight and performed like a brawler. Do undecided voters prefer a trial or a boxing match from their candidates?
In all this, Lester Holt was a superb judge and referee. Compared to all prior presidential debates, this one wasn’t zany – it’s important to be reminded of that. Compared to what it could have been, it was sane.
Clinton got in most of the early licks. She accused Trump of pushing “trumped up, trickle down” economic policy and tagged him for his wealthy roots, bankruptcies and shady dealings. She tangled him up on climate change and at one point he incoherently declared, “I’m a great believer in all forms of energy.” She said, “Donald I know you live in your own reality…”
Clinton made a strong case against Trump for not releasing his taxes, clinically explaining his reasons could only be that he isn’t as rich as he brags, that he’s not charitable, that he doesn’t pay enough or that he has something to hide. Trump’s responses weren’t smooth. On not paying taxes, he said, “That makes me smart.”
But when Holt turned to the topic of race, she seemed clinical and cold – the Hillary people like to hate. Trump’s responses were grotesque, insulting generalizations. He said African-Americans and Hispanics are “living in hell.” He came off as an ignorant bigot but with a heart and an honest tongue. Clinton talked about “systemic racial injustice” with clear thinking but clunky words.
Clinton did rebound. After Trump was asked about his history as a “birther,” Clinton said Trump’s involvement in politics started by promoting this “racist lie” and accused Trump of having “a long record of engaging in racist behavior” going back to 1973.
When it turned to national security, Clinton took several swings at prosecuting Trump as unfit. She said a man who can be “provoked by a Tweet” shouldn’t be anywhere near the nuclear button.”
Trump retorted by saying he has better judgment, better temperament and better stamina than Clinton. “Hillary was experience,” he conceded, “But it’s bad experience.”
It was not as dark a night as many feared, but this campaign has lowered our standards something fierce. One down, two to go.