Batman versus Superman. Ali versus Frazier. David versus Goliath. Ecks versus Sever. Culture is littered with legendary knock down drag out fights in which history hangs in the balance and glory awaits the victorious. Last night’s first presidential debate, moderated by Lester Holt, will not be joining these ranks because there was no glory, no balance and very little history, insofar as history is an accurate statement of fact.
Conventional wisdom has it that Trump started strong, but slowly gave into the temptation to explode into flames at the slightest provocation. He never quite recovered from laughably bad responses to his birther conspiracies and refusal to release his tax returns. Hillary Clinton started off on her heels as Trump came at her with accusations of shifting sides on tax policy, but she grew more comfortable in discussing race relations and coasted through the final thirty minutes as her opponent proved again to be his own worst enemy.
There were no winners. Let’s break down the losers.
God save Lester Holt, a man given the Sisyphean task of moderating a debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump all while being forbidden from doing his job. Holt did manage to jump in with a few fact checks (including the all important check on Trump’s alleged disapproval of the Iraq War). That’s not the most metal thing a journalist can do, but be thankful for small blessings in 2016.
Holt did not fail insofar as there was no way for him to truly succeed, but he lost nevertheless. His actual questions were rarely answered, and when they were answered, it was with such circuitous logic and lawyerly parsing of truth that it hardly mattered.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was disavowed, dragged, left to die in a ditch and damned to hell for all time by all parties involved. One of Trump’s few solid blows of the night was calling out Clinton’s flip on NAFTA. He had her dead to rights, and she knew it. Trump was equally tough on her flip on TPP, but overplayed his hand by saying he forced her to change his mind. If anyone can take credit for forcing Clinton over on the TPP issue, it’s probably Bernie Sanders. Hey, speaking of Sanders …
Chin up, Bernie.
Admittedly, if you like hearing two 70-year-olds yell about “cyber,” this might have been a win for you. But for the rest of us, this was a reason to hope that no matter who wins in November, they hire a very good internet security advisor because good grief. Let’s start with Clinton’s answer on how the US needs to prep for the future.
I think cybersecurity, cyber warfare will be one of the greatest challenges facing the next president, because clearly we’re facing, at this point, two different kinds adversaries. There are the independent hacking groups that do it mostly for commercial reasons to try to steal information that they then can use to make money. But increasingly, we are seeing cyberattacks coming from states.
The most recent and troubling of these has been Russia. There’s no doubt now that Russia has used cyberattacks against all kinds of organizations in our country, and I am deeply concerned about this. I know Donald been very praiseworthy of Vladimir Putin.
But Putin is playing a very tough, long game here. And one of the things he’s done is to let loose cyberattackers to hack into government files, to personal files, the Democratic National Committee. And we recently learned that this is one of their preferred methods of trying to wreak havoc and collect information. We need to make it very clear, whether it’s Russia, China, Iran, or anybody else, the United States has much greater capacity.
And we are not going to sit idly by and permit state actors to go after our information, our private sector information or our public sector information, and we’re going to have to make it clear that we don’t want to use the kinds of tools that we have. We don’t want to engage in a different kind of warfare. But we will defend the citizens of this country, and the Russians need to understand that.
So, OK. This is not an objectively terrific answer and contains very little in the way of real policy about how to address the issue beyond “yeah, it’s a problem.” That said, it is a coherent stringing together of real words into sentences. That’s a pretty low bar to clear for a presidential debate, but clearing it is not a given, as Trump’s answer to the same question shows.
As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said, we should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not. I don’t know if we know it was Russia who broke into the DNC.
She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia. Maybe it was. It could also be China, it could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. You don’t know who broke into DNC, but what did we learn? We learn that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people. By Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. Now, whether that was Russia, whether that was China, whether it was another country, we don’t know, because the truth is, under President Obama we’ve lost control of things that we used to have control over. We came in with an internet, we came up with the internet.
And I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much, when you look at what ISIS is doing with the internet, they’re beating us at our own game. ISIS. So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is a, it is a huge problem.
I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable. But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing, but that’s true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.
So for those of you who read that without your head exploding, let’s parse this: “Either Russia, China or a morbidly obese computer hacker got into the DNC and exposed Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s distaste for nominating Sanders because President Obama lost control of America’s Greatest Invention the internet which ISIS now controls because my ten-year-old computer whiz of a son and cyber security is so hard that it may not even be possible just like the rest of government.”
So, yes, let’s chalk internet security up to a loss.
Did Trump snort cocaine before taking the stage? I don’t know. Many people are saying so. You tell me.
Quippy soundbites don’t win a debate, but supporters love them, so debaters usually try to have a few in the back pocket, and in this debate, the back pocket is where they should have stayed. Whatever Hillary Clinton’s other strengths, she’s not a roaster, and her campaign team needs to stop trying to squeeze her into the Obama mold. The “Trumped up trickle down economics” line would have felt more natural coming from Siri. Her most solid quip was her instantly GIF-able “Whoa, OK!” Fun Mom Shoulder Shimmy, which was almost certainly off the cuff.
Trump is quicker on his feet with attack lines in the sense that he’ll snap at any opportunity like a chained dog at a raw steak, but he was clearly thrown off his game by a crowd that wasn’t allowed to cheer. His petulant interjections throughout the evening which he whispered into the mic like a sitcom character giving an aside to the audience looked childish and boorish onscreen, and while there may have been a good burn buried somewhere in the “that’s why you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life” line, he self-sabotaged himself with hyperbole.
At some point while defending his decision to not release his taxes, Trump went hard after LaGuardia, calling it a “third world country” (perhaps the oddest possible line to plagiarize of Joe Biden’s) and nobody came to its defense.
Whatever Trump says, birtherism is his baby, and he’s thrown his baby to the wolves. The subject of Barack Obama’s citizenship was the only subject more toxic than NAFTA on the debate stage, with both Clinton and Trump desperate to pin blame for it on each other. Of course, the facts are plainly on Clinton’s side on this, and Trump’s attempts to shift the blame are less coherent than his now-refuted claims about Obama’s birth certificate. But on a larger scale, Trump disavowing birtherism is like David Miscavige denouncing Scientology. The conspiracy theories about Obama being born in Kenya will probably outlast us all, but (fingers crossed), without Trump, they’ll slink back to the most putrid corners of the internet.
You will find people on Facebook, Twitter and even respected positions of authority today who will claim that Trump walked away with a W on this one. These people are wrong. Trump did not prepare for this debate and that was painfully obvious from the get-go. He fell into every trap Clinton set and even created a few of his own traps to fall into. Anybody with two brain cells to fire electrons at each other should have been able to see Holt’s questions about birtherism and tax returns coming from a month out, and Trump swung for both of them, missed, swung the bat all the way around, hit himself in the back of the head and set himself on fire.
Hillary Clinton is not a master debater. Many of her answers veered long, and Trump was on solid ground with his early attacks on her shifting stances on tax law reform and foreign trade. Any future attempts at humor should be vetted through Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee because, yikes.
But she played this one as smart as she could, by giving Trump just enough to lash out on and sitting back and smiling pleasantly into the camera while he self-immolated. Trump missed numerous opportunities to go after Clinton on her own scandals (how he never went after the “basket of deplorables” line is a mystery for our time), and his one dig at her emails was so quickly deflated that it’s difficult to see how it could ever be brought up as a real attack again.
But even that doesn’t encapsulate the real miss of Trump’s performance, which was simple incoherence. While discussing foreign policy, he brazenly suggested China should invade North Korea. His defense of cutting taxes for the wealthy defies explanation. The audience burst into laughter when he claimed he had a good temperament.
As we said, there are no winners here. But there was a loser, and the loser was Donald Trump.