Observations on Tonight’s Debate

For those who didn’t watch my live commentary on tonight’s debate–that would be most of you!–here are my thoughts.

1) The first half hour was great theater. The moderator left Trump and Clinton alone, like a referee who lets boxers fight it out. The candidates went back and forth, for a while seeming to validate Trump’s suggestion that they might not need a moderator. Trump did very well in this segment, and the subject mostly under discussion, the economy, was vital.

2) The debate went badly downhill in the middle third, with a succession of irrelevant topics–Trump’s business ventures, birtherism, and Trump’s tax returns. My guess is that a lot of undecided voters tuned out.

3) It is astonishing that in over an hour and a half, the moderator never uttered the word “immigration.” Immigration is Trump’s signature issue and perhaps the one on which he enjoys the widest margin of popular support. The issue can’t be ignored in debates two and three, which will be to Trump’s benefit.

4) In general, both Clinton and Trump performed as expected. Hillary dodged a bullet, in the sense that she didn’t have a coughing fit or appear overly fatigued. Tonight we saw Hillary at her best, but this is basically the Hillary that the American people have known for a long time and don’t like. Trump likewise was Trump, for better or worse. He had good moments, especially early on, but during the last third of the debate the people around me were begging Trump to just stop talking. He was frequently incoherent, and he needs to get better at deflecting irrelevancies and changing the subject to favorable terrain. How in the world did he wind up talking about Rosie O’Donnell?

5) There will be lots of discussion about who “won” the debate, and it is easy to say that the winner–the better performer–was Mrs. Clinton. But asking who won the debate is the wrong question. The question is, did watching the debate make undecided voters more likely to vote for Clinton or Trump? My guess is that in that sense, the event was pretty much a draw, and we won’t see much movement in the polls over the next few days.

6) This is why I don’t think the evening was a bad one for Trump: most undecided voters will have seen Hillary as the embodiment of the political class. Smug, smirking, always ready with a torrent of words that can’t quite obscure the fact that to the extent she herself has wielded power, she has been a failure. Hillary Clinton is a walking exemplar of the political class that got us where we are now. A viewer who thinks America is doing great, our politicians are terrific, things have been going well in recent years and we need more of the same will be motivated to vote for Hillary.

But there aren’t many such voters. By a 70%-30% margin, voters think we are on the wrong track. Those who think America is in decline, our political class is corrupt and incompetent, and we need a change will not be motivated to vote for Mrs. Clinton. On the contrary, however inept he may have been at times, Trump did make it clear that he is the voice for change in the race. That may be a lot more important than “winning.”

Round one is in the books, and I doubt that it changed much. We will find out, as polls come out in the days to come.