By Steven R. Maher
Hillary Clinton had to accomplish several things at the first Presidential debate on September 26, 2016. She had to look Presidential, provoke Trump into losing his temper, display a personality that didn’t turn off voters, and show what Trump called stamina, .i.e., appear in good health. In the course of 90 minutes Clinton did all these things.
The real winner of this debate may not be known until the polls close Election Day, November 8, 2016, exactly six weeks from today. Many pundits thought Trump destroyed himself in the Republican debates, only to see his poll numbers rise. So Hillary supporters shouldn’t celebrate too early. But the impression from this observer is that Clinton won on both style and substance.
Ahead on style
Joe Sixpack might not want to take Hillary out for a beer but economically, voting for Clinton may not appear so outlandish to some blue collar workers. Hillary did not make any outstanding gaffes, partly because Trump did not seize his opportunities. At one point the candidates were asked about cyber-security. Instead of leaping in and bludgeoning Clinton on her missing emails, Trump let the question pass. Likewise, Clinton stated that one of the reasons for the 2008 stock market crash was that regulators took their eyes off Wall Street. That would have been the perfect opportunity for Trump to zing Clinton on taking from Wall Street firms millions of dollars for giving speeches, but Trump inexplicably let the opportunity pass by.
The television screen split between Trump and Clinton played to Clinton’s advantage. Viewers saw a cheerful, smiling Clinton while Trump was speaking. They saw mostly a grimacing, grim and grumpy Trump while Clinton spoke.
The contrast of demeanors was extraordinary. Watching Trump, one was reminded of Richard Nixon’s 1960 debate performance, where Nixon sat grimly, his eyes shifting back and forth. Clinton’s smiling was similar to that of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 performance, where Reagan chuckled and smiled on camera when he was attacked by President Jimmy Carter. Reagan gave the appearance of amiability, which Clinton managed to replicate.
The optics thus favored Clinton, who kept up the façade of a happy warrior with one liners that set off laughter in the audience. “I know you live in your own reality,” said Clinton at one point. During the birther debate Clinton said to Trump in a response aimed at the television audience: “Just listen to what you just heard.”
Trump’s gaffes, while consistent with his performances in the Republican primaries, contained not only verifiable misstatements of fact (“fact checking”), but led Trump to say things better left unsaid. Watching Clinton detour Trump into several political blind alleys, one was reminded of the final scene in “Animal House,” where a character named “The Stork” directed a band into an alley. Trump was like the tuba player in that band, banging out the same old tunes while marching futilely against the wall.
Speaking of walls, Trump did not bring up his emotionally appealing (for some) plan to wall off Mexico. A few other things Trump did not seemed prepared for:
• At a time when he is trying to gain African-American votes, Trump should have avoided the birther issue as if it were Ebola. Clinton learned her lessons about the emails, making a slight confession and appearing contrite. Trump could have worded his answer concisely, used the elasticity of the English language to make a non-apology apology, appeared contrite, and then stopped talking on the subject. Instead he went on a rambling answer that probably did not win him any African-American votes.
• Whereas Trump hesitated to take advantage of several questions to, or answers from, Clinton during the debate, Clinton jumped in with both feet when Trump was asked about his taxes. Clinton detailed all the things Trump could be hiding by not releasing his taxes. We can expect to see this footage in Clinton campaign advertisements, as we can Trump’s statement to the effect that he was too smart to pay taxes.
• When Clinton brought up Trump’s statement that he hoped for a recession so that he could make great buys from bankrupt property owners, Trump stated, “That’s called business.” For millions of Americans, recession means the loss of jobs, bankruptcy and losing their homes. Most Americans don’t have the cash on hand to snap up good property buys when they’re out of work and just trying to survive.
Practice, practice, practice
Why did Clinton outperform Trump? The same way people get to play Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said Clinton’s performance during the debate was “polished and well-rehearsed.” That was essentially the case. Clinton had prepared for the debate, with every smile, line and expression carefully rehearsed for the viewers. Clinton learned from her mediocre performance at the “Commander in Chief” what not to do. Without his teleprompter and advisers, Trump didn’t know when to talk and when to shut up, doing one when he should have done the other.
Trump would have been much better off if he had spent more time preparing for the debates. If Trump learns from this first debate, as well as Clinton did from the commander in chief debate, Trump can still make a comeback.