Shadow Government

A Disappointing, Depressing Debate

Neither of the candidates said much that was new.

TOPSHOT - Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton walk to their lectures for the first US Presidential Debate at Hofstra University September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton walk to their lectures for the first US Presidential Debate at Hofstra University September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

What a depressing debate! Donald Trump remained true to form, scowling, interrupting Hillary Clinton, talking over poor Lester Holt, and successfully avoiding going beyond his stump speech generalities. Clinton did somewhat better. She did not escape her congenital wonkishness, but at least made some halting attempts at what could pass for humor, or at least sharp ripostes at Trump’s expense.

In terms of substance, neither of the candidates said much that was new. Trump did avoid mentioning his “big, beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico, but doubled down on his claims that he opposed the Iraq War, that the Barack Obama administration’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq created the Islamic State, and that NATO countries needed to pay their “fair share” for receiving American protection. He reprised his long-repeated assertion that he could reduce taxes on the wealthy — and everyone else — and still rebuild America’s worn out infrastructure, take the fight to the Islamic State, modernize the nuclear deterrent, and create millions of new jobs. Not surprisingly, he sidestepped Clinton’s barbs about his chumminess with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and her not-too-well disguised hint that he had business dealings with Russia.

Trump’s entire response to economic questions centered in his opposition to trade deals, especially NAFTA. He offered no other economic ideas other than what amounted to protectionism and tax cuts. He did make some snide references to “Yellen” and the “politicized Fed,” but he spoke in such shorthand generalities that it is doubtful whether most viewers had any idea what he was talking about. Finally, he seemed to appeal to minority communities for their support, but at the same time thundered over and over again about “law and order,” that old Nixonian code word, and advocated “stop and frisk,” which minorities have complained specifically targets them.

Trump did say that he earned nearly $660 million in the last year alone, but used that as an example of how he would make America great again, implying that everyone could become as rich as he is. Of course he again asserted that he would not release his tax returns until either his lawyers permitted him to do so, or Clinton released her 30,000 emails. And he stressed that it was Clinton’s campaign team that had launched the “birther” myth, and that he, Trump, had put the issue to rest by creating the public outcry that led Obama to release his birth certificate. It seemed as if every sentence was punctuated with “believe me,” presumably intended to get his audience to suspend all sense of reality.

Clinton, for her part, bobbed and weaved when it came to the Iraq War, blaming the George W. Bush administration for agreeing to pull out the troops and noting that they could not have stayed in Iraq without a status of forces agreement. She did not explain how American troops were re-deployed to Iraq and, for that matter, deployed to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, without a status of forces agreement being in place, and certainly in the case of Syria, without the prospect of there ever being one. When asked about her possible support for a new “no first use” nuclear weapons policy that every administration since President Harry Truman has rejected, she avoided the question entirely, implying that she had not ruled it out. Her “plan” for the Islamic State, while more specific than anything Trump offered, was a rehash of Obama’s policies, which, in the case of Syria, have been a complete flop. She avoided rebutting Trump’s assertion that the administration had made a hash of the Middle East, because on that point he was indeed factually correct. She completely sidestepped the issue of nuclear modernization — to which Trump at least had referred. Finally, although she emphasized the importance of NATO and, contra Trump, demonstrated that the alliance had supported America in Afghanistan — she conveniently ignored French and German opposition to the Iraq War. Nevertheless, for all her specific plans, she said absolutely nothing about military requirements or modernization, which are crucial to maintaining American and NATO credibility in the face of a resurgent Russia. Perhaps she was holding her fire for a future debate.

On domestic issues, Clinton recited her usual litany of reforms, at times sounding like Bernie Sanders’ echo chamber. She touted free tuition for students, loan forgiveness, assistance to small businesses — all to be financed by taxing “the wealthy” and “corporations.” She claimed that “stop and frisk” was unconstitutional, though it was only a lower New York court that had ruled as much, and, as Trump rightly pointed out, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who had opposed the program, chose not to appeal the court’s decision. Her own solution to the troubled inner cities was more funding for training police, and, of course, gun control. Anyone expecting to hear anything other than the usual Democratic domestic agenda was certainly sorely disappointed.

Finally, though she took “full responsibility” for her “mistake” in having a private email server, Clinton was completely evasive about Trump’s allegation regarding her staff’s destruction of those emails. Trump raised that issue, but then seemed to let it drop.

In substantive terms, the debate was only moderately different, but less enlightening, than past ones. What was really depressing about the debate was its style. Trump demonstrated that he is nothing more than the superficial, uninformed rabble-rouser his opponents have always claimed he is. (Full disclosure: As one of the “hacks,” as characterized by Trump, that signed the national security letters regarding his capabilities and character, I am not an unbiased witness). Clinton, determined not to let Trump discomfit her as he did his primary opponents, generally succeeded in looking and sounding presidential. She won the debate on style, and probably on substance as well, but her policy pronouncements were not ones that offer any comfort to conservatives, or, for that matter, moderates who do not want America to lurch even further to the left than it has under the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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