Hillary Clinton wanted to remind Americans of the Donald Trump they had grown accustomed to disliking. The surprise of the debate was that Clinton put before voters a new Trump to dislike. Trump has campaigned as a populist paladin of the working class. But the Trump that Clinton described was a plutocrat who walked away from debts and obligations to his own employees. She pushed the debate into an extended discussion of how Trump had become wealthy and turned what he sees as one of his central assets, his business acumen, into what could become a big liability as the campaign goes forward.
The debate was a slugfest that only occasionally veered into a serious discussion of issues.
E.J. Dionne, Washington Post
The media reaction has been brutal. NeverTrump conservative Bill Kristol tersely said, “I’m not positive Hillary actually won the debate. But I’m sure Trump lost it. He choked.” His more Trump-sympathetic colleague Fred Barnes panned Trump’s performance: “He talked too long, interrupted Clinton, touted himself and took her bait time after time to respond to her charges. It was the wrong approach at the wrong time at the wrong debate.” Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman called it “the worst — and I mean worst — debate performance in modern times,” graciously allowing for the possibility that some pre-modern debater was forced to flee the stage under a barrage of rotten fruit. Fox News got embarrassed, and rightfully so. Trying to insist that he had opposed the Iraq war from the start — he did not — Trump pleaded with the audience to call Sean Hannity, with whom he claims to have discussed the matter (off air, of course). That’s an extraordinary recognition of the degree to which Hannity — and thereby Fox — has been made into an adjunct of the campaign. Fox’s legitimate news people should raise a rumpus; Hannity is undermining their brand.
Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post
Nothing new was learned Monday night. Clinton, who smiled a lot in trying to appear more personable, was predictably well-prepared. Trump was self-assured, but evasive on some issues and ill-informed on others. Maybe the most surprising aspect of the debate was how little time was spent on Clinton’s missing e-mails. Trump at times was clearly irritated, but avoided the name-calling he resorted to in the Republican debates.
Until the next debate, analysts will be telling us whether they think Clinton or Trump won. Those assessments will likely affect polls, since it is human nature to want to be on the winning side. Rather than succumb to that urge, voters need to understand that watching a TV debate may help, but its herky-jerky format prevents it from being the best way to find out who has the experience, aptitude and attitude to be president.
Hillary Clinton confirmed that she’s a bit imperious. Donald Trump confirmed that the emperor has no clothes.
Clinton made clear that she knows her stuff. Trump made clear that even when he’s touching on the truth, he’s unfit to occupy the White House.
The task was simple, really. Clinton had to appear trustworthy and honest. Oh, and be likable, a woman’s unending burden, but that continues to be a challenge for her.
Trump had to, well, given his strengthening poll numbers, keep on doing what’s worked for him so far: Ignore anything close to a fact, lie and put on a great show. Surprisingly, for the first 30 minutes or so, Trump was low-key, for him, and appeared to be a capable debater. But then he became unmoored, rambled, got into the weeds about finances and his support of the Iraq war and NATO’s role in the world.
Moderator Lester Holt had a difficult task. Unfortunately, he blended into the background, without strongly challenging Trump’s serial mendacity or Clinton’s blithe blowoff of the e-mail scandal or her wrong assertions about Trump’s taxes. The only time he really made a stand was in assuring the backpedaling Trump that he did, indeed, support the Iraq war.
There was no knockout punch, but Clinton won on points.
The evening proved that preparation matters. It will probably end up being the first and last presidential debate in which a candidate basically wings it and depends on his larger-than-life personality and supreme self-confidence to carry the day.
The question about Trump going into the debate was whether he could exhibit two key presidential qualities he has previously not shown: control and command. The answer turned out to be no. The calm, statesmanlike Trump whom some had predicted would appear was in evidence for only a few minutes. Soon enough he began interrupting Clinton, repeatedly intoning “wrong!” as she spoke, letting loose with a weary “Ugh!” and avoiding specifics.
The pre-debate question about Clinton was whether she could come off as credible and inspirational. The answer turned out to be maybe. By and large she avoided lawyer-speak and the sort of parsing of words that earned her a reputation for slipperiness. But her passion was restrained and her rhetoric never soared.
Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
In an otherwise strong debate performance for Hillary Clinton on Monday night, she stumbled when it came to Iran. In the section of the presidential forum focused on national security issues, she played on a quip Donald Trump made earlier this month about the Iranian Navy’s recent maneuvers in the Persian Gulf.
“The other day, I saw Donald saying there were some Iranian sailors on a ship and they were taunting American sailors. ‘If they taunted our sailors, I would blow them out of the water’ and start another war?” she asked.
Clinton’s quip badly misunderstands what’s going on right now in the Persian Gulf. Taunting is not the right word for Iranian boats sailing dangerously close in recent months to U.S. ships that are in the Persian Gulf to secure one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.
These incidents have so alarmed Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, that he told reporters this month he worried about a miscalculation.
Clinton presumably wasn’t trying to diminish Gen. Votel and the risk he is seeing. A big part of Clinton’s pitch to voters on national security is that she understands the world and how it works, whereas Trump is a dangerous amateur who doesn’t grasp the basics. It would behoove her to take Iran’s aggression seriously, and to tell Trump that those are not mere “taunts.”
Clinton missed an opportunity to show that she too understood the importance of deterrence in the Persian Gulf.
ELI LAKE, Bloomberg View
Whatever remains of American exceptionalism does not immunize this nation from decay, to which all regimes are susceptible.
The world’s oldest political party is an exhausted volcano, the intellectual staleness of its recycled candidate unchallenged because a generation of younger Democratic leaders barely exists. The Republican Party’s candidate evidently disdains his credulous supporters who continue to swallow his mendacities. About 90 percent of presidential votes will be cast for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, refuting the theory that this is a center-right country. At the risk of taking Trump’s words more seriously than he does, on some matters he is to Clinton’s left regarding big government powered by an unbridled presidency.
GEORGE F. WILL, Washington Post
In 1973, a trash-talking, overage, self-described “chauvinist pig” named Bobby Riggs took on Billie Jean King in a tennis match in the Houston Astrodome that was billed as the Battle of the Sexes. King won in straight sets.
History repeated itself Monday.
After controlling himself for the first two questions, Trump discarded all the advice that he must have received from debate handlers like Roger Ailes. Grimacing when he wasn’t speaking, Trump began interrupting Hillary Clinton after almost every sentence and soon degenerated into pure gibberish. In the history of presidential debates, it is hard to top Trump’s non sequitur, “No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS all your life.”
What was fascinating was that Trump’s debate strategy offered no surprises. It was a greatest hits tour of Trump’s rudest moments, devoid of even flashes of humor.
Violating every protocol of everyman politics, Trump actually bragged about not paying any taxes: “That makes me smart.” And unlike any prior candidate running for the commander in chief, Trump freely admitted that until recently, “I haven’t given lots of thought to NATO.”
As Tim Crouse recounted in “The Boys on the Bus,” his classic account of the press covering the 1972 campaign, reporters used to hover over the typewriter of Walter Mears, the AP correspondent, wanting to know what the news lead would be. That form of pack journalism now seems quaint, but even in an era of social media it takes a few days for the aftereffects of a debate to percolate through the system.
That is why it is a risky game to predict where the polls will be at the end of the week.
Walter Shapiro, CQ-Roll Call
Trump was prepared to do what he has done for 18 months: spout falsehoods. But while that works on Twitter and at campaign rallies, it didn’t go well in the 90-minute debate. Clinton, with an occasional assist from Holt, was able to take some 100 million viewers on a tour of what she called Trump’s “own reality.”
DANA MILBANK, Washington Post
In the face of personal or professional criticism, Clinton, a decades-long political fixture and the establishment candidate in this race, plasters on a grin because that’s what her K Street advisers figure voters want to see.
No one grins like this in real life other than people posing for Christmastime photos on Santa’s knee at the mall or shady people trying to sell you something dodgy. It smacks of inauthenticity and makes people wonder what’s behind the mask. That mask slipped periodically during Monday’s debate when Clinton appeared more focused on thinking about what she was going to say than on how she came across. In those moments, I actually found myself preferring the creepy grin.
Meanwhile, critics have accused Trump of being unprepared and failing to convey optimism. Could it be that Trump didn’t feel like getting up in front of America and acting like a big phony?
RACHEL MARSDEN, Tribune Content Agency
Clinton was consistently cheery and spunky, and frequently on the attack. There were no coughing fits or fainting spells; just sharp elbows. And, more important, when Trump said that Clinton lacked stamina, it was juxtaposed by a split screen of her smiling and looking sharp as a tack.
Trump passed the competence test, but he did nothing to resolve concerns about his temperament. What is more, while his combative performance is likely to please his current base, if one assumes a Trump victory requires increasing his support among Republican women (Trump is getting only about 72 percent of them, but Mitt Romney garnered 93 percent of the Republican female vote), it’s hard to see where Monday’s performance helped.
What’s more, anyone worried that Trump could not fill the requisite time allowed to respond to questions, or that his lack of expertise in policy areas would be obvious, was wrong. Always loquacious, Trump had no trouble filling the time. And although his lack of policy fluency is no secret, his folksy answers — especially early on — were a refreshing change from the normal way politicians usually speak.
Still, by my score, Hillary Clinton easily won this debate. At the end of the night, both of these candidates have serious flaws. But we’re past the stage of bargaining, and onto acceptance. Somebody has to win, and Monday night it was Clinton.
Matt K. Lewis, CQ-Roll Call
Donald Trump had plenty of moments that would have disqualified any other candidate in a presidential debate. But he was better at getting his message across than Clinton was, because his message was simpler. We need more law and order, he said; we need to respect police even as we reform them, she parried. Our allies are taking advantage of us, he kept saying; she talked about the value of alliances without responding to the point. Even on trade, where the positions they articulated were pretty similar — they both want tougher enforcement of trade laws, say they are free traders and reject the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership — she sounded more like someone who wanted to be on all sides of the issue at once.
But Trump seemed to run out of things to say early. She got better after her overscripted beginning. By the end, he was just whining that her advertisements were “not nice.”
So the fact that she didn’t disqualify him was not enough to make this debate a win for him. He needed to show himself qualified to people who doubt it. He didn’t. She won this round.
RAMESH PONNURU, Bloomberg View
A debate is a high-pressure experience, intellectually and emotionally demanding. But so is the presidency. If Trump cannot prepare for a 90-minute exchange — and show some competence, coherence and decorum — it’s hard to see how he can rise to the complex tasks of running the most powerful nation on Earth.
Trump was as erratic and peevish as he has been since the beginning of his campaign. This has worked for him up to now; it may work still in what has become a close race. A lot of Americans want change; Trump is the political upstart and Clinton the political establishment. Nothing that transpired in the debate will have altered the fact that millions of Americans want rupture, not continuity, and that they see in Trump the potential for a radical break from politics as usual.
But if Trump’s aim was to come across as presidential, in the sense of possessing judgment and some actual knowledge of issues, he failed.
Clinton, for her part, came across as a steady hand, at once patient and resolute. Still, for Clinton, a candidate struggling to overcome distrust and enthuse dubious young Americans, this was a polished rather than breakthrough performance. She delivered all that could be expected of her. But hesitant voters are looking for a glimpse of the unexpected and unscripted in her, a human connection rather than a political one. They will still be waiting.
ROGER COHEN, New York Times
I have taken the liberty of abridging the debate in case you were one of the six or so Americans who did not watch.
Lester Holt: Welcome to the debate! I have somewhere else to be for the next half-hour ...
Donald Trump: Hi. I am Donald Trump. You may have been wondering: Did my advisers just say that I had not prepared at all for these debates in order to lower audience expectations, or did I not prepare at all for these debates? Now, you will have your answer.
Hillary Clinton: Can I respond? I just want to explain what your plan would actually do. It is like trickle-down economics, but even worse. I came up with a fun nickname for it, because my campaign wanted to make sure I created moments of “levity” instead of just lecturing. “Trumped-up trickle-down,” we call it. Is that fun? By my standards, that seems fun. Donald, your business started when your dad loaned you $14 million.
Trump: In my defense, $14 million is, like, practically nothing.
Holt: Hey, guys, did I miss anything?
Alexandra Petri, Washington Post