As many as 100 million people were expected to watch the first presidential debate Monday between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We’re especially interested in one of those viewers.
Wake Forest political communications professor Allan Louden is a national champion debate coach who has worked with politicians such as Elizabeth Dole. Louden began grading debates and speeches for us back in 2008. Readers love his insight. We do, too.
This first presidential debate was about composure, he says. Who gets the best grade?
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I expect most of the readers of this column are not be old enough to remember Celebrity Deathmatch, a popular claymation MTV show that ran four years beginning in 1988. The humor segment depicted celebrities, slugging it out in the wrestling ring, with dark undertones. For younger readers maybe cage-match wrestling would better explain what maybe 100 million viewers tuned in to watch.
Last night’s debate between Trump and Clinton took on overtones of made for TV spectacle.
The viewership level and oversized personalities promised so much, fireworks and more. The debate was often billed as the debate of the century, but it simply wasn’t. The debate was characterized by sharp attacks, defensive explanation, and recycled zingers, but in the end it was humdrum.
The lasting story of the debate was one of composure.
Clinton was self-possessed, reacted in split screen with humor, and never appeared close to imploding (Trump came close in needling her on the Iran agreement). Trump by comparison was strong on the economic questions, but his command frayed as the debate turned from offense to rambling defense.
If one thought Trump won, it would because he successfully branded Clinton as a “politician,” wedded to the how things are done in government. As Trump pined frequently, “She's been doing this for 30 years.” Those yearning for change, dissatisfied with the nation’s direction, would leave the evening with the status quo, as an albatross, firmly around Hillary’s neck.
And where were the gaffs? After a long season of Trump hyperbole and Clinton embellishment, we have become almost immune when mistakes, misstatements, and meanness were displayed – and instances were many. The debate, nonetheless, is notable in that no defining moment occurred, no solecism defining the election.
The closest to a defining line was “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that's a good thing.”
The debate evolved in three uneven segments: economy, race, and foreign policy. The first segment may have been Trump’s. He targeted NAFTA, TPP, claiming an understanding of how business works unavailable to politicians cozied to big business and Wall Street, and he even scored points on no VAT taxes on imports, forcing business to leave the country. Hillary was defensive hearing the Ohio and Michigan’s electoral votes moving columns, yet she remained calm, steering the language debate to the middle class, her father the drape maker, and offering perhaps the evening’s only original zinger, “Trumped-up trickle-down.”
Race take over the interior of the evening. Sitting in a room of students and faculty, the reception was stark. From the partisan hoots and hollers on the economic dialogue, studied silence filled the room. Seriousness pervaded.
The candidates took predictable positions, Trump offering Nixon’s Law and Order on steroids, coded but direct, “we need law and order in the inner cities, because the people that are most affected by what's happening are African-American and Hispanic people.” Clinton preached dialogue, invoking the “vibrancy of the black church, the black businesses,” but neither seems to know any more than the country as a whole as to solutions.
The race portion degenerated when Trump displayed a tin ears to the black community’s petition, by essentially asking that minorities be disarmed. And implicitly Hillary agreed. Not a high moment for either.
The beginning of the end for Trump’s composure was his inability to offer any reason for perpetuating the birther controversy about producing Obama’s birth certificate. On that, as with all things, he personally made it happen. With Trump flummoxed and defensive, the debate transitioned to foreign policy, a comfort zone for a former Secretary of State.
Equanimity abandoned Trump in the last half hour of the debate. Pressed on foreign policy, challenged on abandoning NATO, negotiating treaties like construction contracts, and scolded by Clinton in perhaps her most Presidential moment “. . . words matter. Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them,” Trump became increasingly incoherent.
In the waning moments of the debate, Trump flailed as if to capture a message slipping away in details. When pressed on his “opposition” to the Iraq war Trump repeatedly scolded the press, “everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity,” who was his evidence of opposition to the Iraq invasion.
The lasting story of the debate will be one of composure.
Grades: Trump C-, Clinton B+