If you missed the Great American Presidential Debate, here it is in a nutshell.
Donald Trump’s strategy: Hillary Clinton is just another politician, making promises she won’t keep. Politicians are the ruin of this country. She has a lot of experience, but it’s bad experience. I am successful. I am huge. I am the outsider. I have fancy hotels. I have high-powered friends. And maybe I am smart enough to not even pay taxes. Don’t you want to be like me?
Hillary Clinton’s strategy: You gotta be kidding me. You want this guy in the White House? No really? I mean, you really gotta be kidding me.
Trump’s ancillary strategy: Interrupt. Then interrupt some more. Vox counted that in the first 26 minutes of the debate, Trump interrupted Clinton 25 times. Moderator Lester Holt interrupted her 15 times as well. That’s 40 interruptions in 26 minutes. But that’s by now become part and parcel of Hillary’s course to the White House and almost to be expected. Shattering the glass ceiling will resume after the interruptions.
If you were looking for that zinger moment where one side knocked the stuffing out of the other, it didn’t happen. But come on, we’ve come to a stage where an analyst tweets Trump won that debate because he didn’t fling his poo around on the stage, while Clinton sounded too wonky. It’s as if the US presidential election is being conducted between a giant baby and a schoolmarm.
James Fallows says in The Atlantic that the best way to watch the debate is to do it with the sound off and see Clinton and Trump's body language without the distraction of words. Alas, I did not have the stomach for 90 minutes of that. So I listened and here’s what I learned about the duo.
We learned that the split-screen is not Donald Trump’s friend. Hillary Clinton has her strange smile problem - but at least she does not fidget, nervously sip water, sniffle, squint, scowl, and mutter “Wrong”.
We learned that Donald Trump is still thin-skinned, especially when it comes to his own biography. Clinton, it’s fair to say, got under the skin of Donald Trump. Not enough to make him implode in a great orange gob, but enough to make him bluster and repeat “Wrong wrong” like a mantra. He really got worked up about Clinton basically saying Trump was born with Daddy’s silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t like it when she talked about how he had disparaged a Latina contestant at a beauty pageant as Miss Housekeeping, either.
We learned that Donald Trump thinks that not looking presidential is the same as not having the stamina for the job. Incidentally, he was the one constantly sipping his glass of water while she powered through the debate with barely a sip. If the Trump campaign hopes that the image of Clinton collapsing will make voters hesitate, tonight at least, Hillary Clinton buried that image decisively.
We learned that Clinton is not quick enough on her feet to hammer home some of those points as powerfully as she could have. When Trump made the astounding claim that he did a good job in getting Barack Obama to release his birth certificate, that was a #ShameOnYou moment, but Clinton had the #YouGottaBeKiddingMe look again. Just listen to him, she was telling the American voters. Just listen to him.
And there lies Clinton’s problem. The voters have been listening to him. And his numbers keep creeping up. When she said, “I intend to be a leader of our country that people can count on, and stand up to bullies whether abroad or at home”, that was clearly a jab at Trump but somehow it didn’t hit the bull’s eye. She had to recycle Michelle Obama’s line about when they go low, we go high.
But those are strictly one-use lines. Neither did the trumped up trickle down economics jibe catch fire. To work, those lines have to sound off-the-cuff, not pre-prepped. Hillary Clinton told us she was preparing for the debate. And it showed, sometimes to her advantage, but sometimes to her detriment.
We learned that Donald Trump cannot get through a debate without insulting some group or the other. Here, in no particular order, are the groups he could have offended this time around - overweight hackers (especially 400-pound ones), Rosie O’Donnell, the fools who pay income tax. We also learned that he has no control over that wagging finger. The little finger wagged, and having waggeth, kept wagging on.
We learned that Trump wants to present himself as the fighter-in-chief. While Clinton wants to be the reassurer-in-chief. She wants to reassure American allies that the United States of America will keep its word. He wants to tell everyone, NATO included, that he’s fighting for the American who lost his job and won’t necessarily honour any prior promise.
As the outsider, it’s easier for him to peddle that story. And while Clinton might reassure a nervous Japan, that does not win her votes in America’s Rust Belt.
We learned that Hillary Clinton will always have to struggle against one almost insurmountable problem. She’s a politician. She cannot exactly reject the status quo. She can promise to tinker with it. She wants to not offend law enforcement, nor does she want to lose the African-American vote or the immigrant vote.
Donald Trump is simple, declarative and un-nuanced. Everything is “unbelievable”. Everything is “magnificent”. He wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out. He wants to build a wall to keep American manufacturers in. It will be a “beautiful” wall.
Trump is easy to swallow, even if he is preposterous and also causes instant indigestion. Clinton is the conventional multivitamin pill promising good health to everyone. And Trump wants to make Clinton the scapegoat of every disappointment every voter ever feels about their politicians. And he just might.
We learned that every time you think Donald Trump has redefined chutzpah, he can redefine it all over again. Challenged on prolonging the racist birther movement about Obama’s birth certificate, he bragged that he did a “good job” in getting him to release it.
He bald-facedly told the American people that his biggest asset was his temperament, when in fact he’s famously temperamental. His idea about race relations is law and order, gangs roaming the streets, illegal immigrants and stop-and-frisk.
And he demanded brownie points for considering being “extremely rough to Hillary and her family”, but deciding “it’s not nice”. At this stage in the campaign, Trump wants to present himself as Mr Nice Guy. Now that’s chutzpah.
And finally we learned a new noun. Cyber. “We must get better at doing cyber.”
If nothing else, that will enter the lexicon from this debate. Let’s go do some cyber, everybody.