Clinton picked Trump apart on his failure to disclose his tax return, turning on him when he lamented the state of American airports, roads, bridges and tunnels: “Maybe because you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years.”
About midway through their first debate, Hillary Clinton said of Donald Trump: “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.”
It was one of her best moments, an understated swipe at Trump’s evident lack of preparation for the responsibilities of the Oval Office, and it got to the heart of their often disjointed exchanges: Clinton was measured and assured, if a little too much of a policy wonk at times, while 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 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. He ranted more than he reasoned. He repeated untruths, and he repeated himself over and over. His core supporters won’t care, of course, but the undecided voters who will decide the election might.
Clinton, for her part, came across as a steady hand, at once patient and resolute. She picked Trump apart on his failure to disclose his tax return, turning on him when he lamented the state of American airports, roads, bridges and tunnels: “Maybe because you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years.” She pilloried his treatment of women to great effect, and led the prickly Trump into a rabbit-hole of tired allegations as she held his long embrace of lies about President Barack Obama’s place of birth up for deserved ridicule. Trump, when he gets defensive, is a bore. This was amply illustrated under Clinton’s fire.
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.
She was at her worst when she talked about how “independent experts” favor her economic plans over Trump’s and when, more than once, she urged viewers to go to her website for real-time fact checking of her opponent’s words. People were not watching Clinton to be directed to the efforts of Clinton’s staff. They know the Clinton campaign is competent.
Besides, not all Clinton’s facts were straight. Under fire from Trump for her flip-flopping on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — Clinton was a strong supporter before opposing it — she said she had merely “hoped it would be a good deal.” In fact, just as Trump insisted, she had called it “the gold standard” in trade agreements.
“Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts,” Clinton said during this sharp discussion of trade, which constituted Trump’s most effective moment. Clinton’s reversal on the free trade that has, on balance, been good for the American economy for decades has left her vulnerable, defending positions of which she herself is unconvinced. Bernie Sanders pushed her left of her comfort zone on trade, and now she is cornered.
But this was an isolated moment of ascendancy for Trump. Where Clinton dealt effectively with her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state by saying, simply, that it was a mistake, Trump could not utter that word. Mistake and the Republican candidate do not inhabit the same universe.
He repeated the lie that he had initially opposed the Iraq war, denied dismissive statements he made about climate change, blathered about his taxes, displayed complete ignorance of the effectiveness of the Iran nuclear deal, and even strayed into a no-go area by attacking the Federal Reserve. Such was his scattershot incoherence on foreign policy that Clinton’s tired defense of a plodding approach to the ISIS threat — a defense that was utterly unpersuasive — seemed at least grounded in a modicum of bitter experience. Clinton assured American allies that mutual defense treaties would be honored. Trump is plainly convinced he can reinvent the world without studying it, a dangerous delusion.
His case to be president came down to saying it was time that the United States is run by somebody who understands money. But, even if Trump does know his way around money, an uncertain proposition, that is insufficient preparation for leading the free world.
Toward the end, Trump questioned Clinton’s stamina. The response was instant: “Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”
It was a brilliant dismissal of Trump’s nasty innuendo. In a normal campaign, it might drive home why Clinton is far better prepared to be president. But this is not a normal campaign. Clinton won Monday night, by any conventional reckoning. But whether that makes victory for her on Nov. 8 any more likely is unclear.