Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump held their first debate last night, moderated by Lester Holt. Holt did a fine job; fact-checking when it was needed, otherwise allowing both candidates to state their case for why they should be President.
And when they actually started debating, Hillary obliterated Trump. She blew him off the map.
Early on, on the subject of free trade, Trump did well. Trade deals like NAFTA are bad for American manufacturing; he gets that, and articulates it well. That’s most of his candidacy–‘our economy struggles because trade deals favor Mexico and China.’ That’s bonkers, but it’s simple, easy to memorize, and plays for American nativists. And Hillary Clinton has a tough time there. Her instincts are pro-free trade, and she generally supports trade deals. (And should; they’re ultimately beneficial). But the costs of free trade are obvious; the benefits are subtler, and more difficult to explain. Rather than go through a long, abstruse explanation of the ways NAFTA really was good for America, she could only really pivot to her basic economic message. He drew blood on trade, and it showed; for a moment, Trump seemed to be winning.
That was twenty minutes in. For the rest of the debate, she blew him out of the water. She kept Trump off-balance. She adroitly kept the conversation limited to her issues, not his. (He said nothing about immigration, for example, nothing about that doggone wall). She raised serious questions about his finances, which clearly angered him, and kept the heat on. In the meantime, she also managed to demonstrate her grasp on policy, with solid answers on foreign policy, Iran, Isis, and the economy. He kept interrupting her, she kept smiling, and refused to be derailed.
As I watched, I realized that each of them was trying to articulate a specific narrative for the other one, and that their successes and failures throughout the debate depended on how successfully they managed to sell those narratives.
Here’s Hillary Clinton’s narrative: Trump is woefully unprepared to be President. He’s not a politician; his resume is as a businessman. He’s not a good businessman, though. He’s a businessman who stiffs subcontractors. He has repeatedly filed for bankruptcy. His first job in business involved a scheme to discriminate against minority homeowners. (His answer seemed to be that we should all be applauding him for building a non-discriminating resort. What?) It’s not just that big business and politics are very different arenas. He’s quite specifically the kind of businessman who is unlikely to be a good President. She takes his main qualification for the Presidency, and turns it into a liability.
Here’s Trump’s narrative: Hillary Clinton is a typical politician. She’s all talk, no action. She’s been thinking about these important issues her entire adult life, but to what end? What has she actually accomplished? Our political system is broken anyway, and it’s broken because of politicians like Hillary Clinton. She has these terrible and costly ideas, which cost tons of money and end up not working. Or, her occasional good ideas never seem to get implemented. She had her chance–on trade, in the Middle East–and blew it. She epitomizes how broken American politics has become. She’s not just a politician, she’s specifically the kind of politician unlikely to be a good President. He takes her main qualification for the Presidency, and turns it into a liability.
That’s what they’re both trying to accomplish. And last night, I thought she did a better job of selling her narrative. She got lucky in one sense. I could hardly believe it, but last night, in a debate featuring Hillary Clinton, there was no mention of Benghazi, no mention of Whitewater, no mention of the Clinton Foundation, and only one question about her emails, which she dismisssed briskly. In the biggest missed opportunity of the night, Trump was asked about the threat to American cyber-security posed by hackers, and did not pivot immediately to her email server, as I expected him to. Instead, we got this completely incoherent word salad, all about which police unions have endorsed him, and how the DNC hack might have been done by foreign actors, or by some 400 lb. guy in his bed, and wasn’t it cool to read all those hacked emails anyway?
So Trump wasn’t particularly swift afoot, and Clinton kept the pressure on, and by the end, Trump sounded pathetic, shouting that he did too have the best temperment. Still, there will be three more debates, two involving these two and one more with their Vice-Presidential picks. (That could get interesting: Mike Pence is dumb as a brick). But watch the two narratives. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each have a story they’re selling. And the one who sells theirs best will likely become President of the United States.