Two of America’s most widely reviled people had a 90-minute nationally televised argument Monday night about which one of them is the worst, and expectations are that the audience was bigger than anything since the series finale of Jerry Seinfeld’s show about nothing. Even our happily apolitical brother in Colorado called shortly beforehand to say he was skipping the evening’s National Football League contest to watch the first presidential debate, which is saying something, but we expect that the massive audience was as disappointed as we were.
The so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters of Republican nominee Donald Trump were no doubt disappointed that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t keel over or drop dead or at least require an extended bathroom break during the ordeal, as all their latest health rumors had predicted, and at the end of the 90 minutes she was even able to riposte Trump’s question’s about her stamina with a plausible boast about all the miles she’d logged and the hours of congressional inquiries about her various scandals she’d survived. Clinton was feisty enough for the hour-and-a-half to get in a few digs that had Trump on the defensive, make a disarmingly apologetic answer about that ongoing e-mail scandal, spin some heartwarming yarns about her small businessman pop and her toddler granddaughter, and generally strike that middle note between presidential and shrill.
Although we doubt that any of Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters were swayed by Clinton’s performance, we expect that anyone still undecided about about which of these two widely reviled people is worst considered it the abject humiliation that Trump promised as he taunted his way through debates with a wide field of vastly more qualified Republican opponents. Clinton’s more reluctant supporters will probably concede, meanwhile, will have to concede that she also didn’t score any knock-outs.
Trump didn’t go on any racist tirades or mock anyone’s handicaps or boast about his penis size, as he did during his successful run through those vastly more qualified candidates on his way to the Republican nomination, and he even made a show of addressing his opponent as “Secretary.” He got in a few digs of his own, and even if none of them will be widely-looped soundbites today neither will be any of his already-familiar gaffes. After a half-hour or so When he finished with a boast about his superior presidential temperament it got a laugh from the studio audience, which had mostly been as quiet as instructed, but we doubt many were tuned in by that point.
Anyone paying any attention to the more substantive parts of the so-called debate were likely the most disappointed. The boring part started off with Trump asserting that since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed American manufacturing employment had declined, Clinton failing to note that American manufacturing output has also increased since then due to the technological innovations that have actually had more to do with that employment decline, and neither candidate sounding at all like the understood the economic realities of the moment. Clinton blasted the “Trumped-up trickle down economics” of her opponents tax plan, he failed to defend the Reagan economic record or make the arguments about her soak-the-rich nonsense, and it all devolved into a shouting match about how much money his rich dad had loaned him to start his much bragged-about business. Trump denied having “tweeted” that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese, which he actually did, and although we think it is a hoax we doubt it invented by the Chinese and have to score that a desultory draw. He criticized her awful decision to topple the Libyan dictatorship of the undeniably awful yet largely defanged Moammar Gaddafi, which led to all the lies she told about the lives lost in the aftermath in Benghazi, but she rightly pointed out that he had advocated the same policy, and we have no doubt he would have told the same sort of lies about the aftermath, so we now have to score even that deplorable and disqualifying episode in her career as a draw.
Clinton actually struck our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities as far more sane than Trump when she talked about the importance of honoring America’s treaty commitments and credit obligations, and we doubt that Trump’s “America First” isolation will have any appeal to her reluctant leftist supporters. Trump seemed more reasonable on the slightly-less-old-fashioned “law and order” theme, but we doubt that his appeals to America’s minorities will prove persuasive. Both caught the other on a couple of outright falsehoods, such as Trump’s oft-repeated lie that he was against taking out Gaddafi and Clinton’s newly-minted claim that crime rates haven’t been rising in New York City, but we expect that few people will bother to look any of it up. Clinton seemed to score a point when the conversation got around to Trump’s year’s long efforts to prove that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and his recent admission that “Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” and after Trump spent several moments trying to claim that Clinton was responsible and that he deserved credit for proving Obama’s native birth Clinton got another laugh from the generally well-behaved crowd by simply responding “Just listen to what you heard.”
The next round of polling will deliver the final score, and in this crazy year we hesitate to offer any predictions, but we’ll be so bold as to call it a draw. Our brother called us before the big event because we used to be involved in high school and collegiate debate and we wanted our insights how it might work out, but we told this wasn’t any sort of debate we were used to but rather a reality television show that both of the participants knew better than we ever wanted to know. Our scant familiarity with the format suggests that the women Trump is doing poorly with didn’t like how he kept interrupting her, based on our experiences with women, and that the men Trump is leading with didn’t like the way she kept talking, based on our experiences with men, and that this is how presidential elections are elections now decided, based on our observations of how very awful things are these days.
— Bud Norman