Damned by Faint Trump

Last night’s debate was nothing to crow about on either side, but Hillary Clinton definitely got the better of her rival.

TOPSHOT - Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican nominee Donald Trump leave the stage after the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY        (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican nominee Donald Trump leave the stage after the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

It wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared it would be. Writing on Sept. 26, 1960, the great American journalist Edward R. Murrow summed up the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon by saying, “after last night’s debate, the reputation of Messieurs Lincoln and Douglas is secure.” The reputation of Messieurs Lincoln and Douglas remains unchallenged after tonight’s debate, as well.

But it wasn’t horrible — it had substantive moments — and that’s noteworthy this election cycle. Hillary Clinton lived up to her Saturday Night Live impersonation of shrewdness, came locked and loaded with oppo research on Donald Trump’s taxes, business practices, the name of a woman he demeaned, policy citations … and gave Trump all the rope he demanded to explain himself at length. She did some A+ trolling, chipping his vanity and counting on his inability to restrain himself. It was a successful strategy. Trump landed several solid blows but simply lacked the discipline to drive home the points (for example, on her emails). His insistence on his “temperament” as his best quality was refuted by his performance.

National security was scheduled to comprise one of six segments of the debate, but it was largely less than illuminating. The moderator led with cyber. Clinton gave a reasonable description of commercial exploitation and state-sponsored malfeasance. I thought she missed the chance to bash Trump about his Russian connections. Her policy recommendations are also pretty weak: declaring we won’t permit states to target our private or government information, and that we have tools we could use and will defend our citizens. She seems innocent of the hostility most tech firms have toward Washington, breezily counting on working with them. But if she was weak, Trump was unsound: he claimed (contra the FBI) that Russia was not behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee servers, waded into the information provided by hackers, claimed President Barack Obama “lost control of the internet,” and then praised his 10-year old son as a computer genius.

How to fight the Islamic State had a similar trajectory, with Clinton describing a plan to intensify airstrikes and work with regional partners to deny them territory and disrupt their propaganda. Thankfully, she did not repeat her pledge not to ever put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria. As my Foreign Policy colleague Peter Feaver has already pointed out, Clinton got away with eliding Obama administration responsibility for withdrawing from Iraq. Trump barraged her with half-accurate criticisms and advanced no plan of his own beyond his ludicrous insistence he would have “taken the oil” and thereby prevented the rise of ISIS. His justification for not having a plan was that Clinton was conveying to the enemy what we intend to do.

Where Trump did have a plan was on the economy, the candidates bickering quite substantively on tax rates and job consequences. America’s debt-to-GDP ratio crossed a very dangerous threshold last year, eclipsing 100 percent, and Trump puts that national security risk in the center of his argument for doing things differently. I hadn’t given him enough credit on that score. Trump repeatedly referenced our $20 trillion national debt; Clinton cited Trump’s tax plan as adding $5 trillion to the debt and costing 3 million jobs. Both Trump and Clinton reflexively linked debt to jobs. But neither candidate had anything to say about reining in the expanse of entitlements, which is the driver of the debt and will eat the entirety of the federal outlays by 2022. In fact, both actively support expanding entitlement programs.

The discussion of homegrown radicals was surprisingly tepid, given the way Trump has connected it to banning Muslim immigration. Clinton praised the work of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, emphasized the necessity of good Muslim community relations, and that was about it.

Trump repeated much nonsense: ranting about not supporting the Iraq War (the article he cited in his defense came out 18 months into the war, and thus cannot be used as the basis for prewar attitudes), claiming Iran was “ready to fall” before the nuclear agreement propped the government up, falsely claimed he convinced NATO to start looking at terrorism, weirdly claimed that “all of the things she is talking about could have been taken care of in the past 10 years when she had immense power.”

He revisited his standard complaints about America’s unaffordable alliance relationships, giving Clinton her best moment of the night as she spoke to reassure America’s allies that our country will honor our mutual defense treaties and can be trusted to keep its word. It pretty well defanged his claim that “she’s got experience, but it’s bad experience. And this country can’t afford to have another four years of that kind of experience.”

Trump looked much less formidable than in rally settings where he can key off the crowd. When the crowd was vocal, it was mostly in support of Clinton — and unconnected to her cloying appeals to them or to fact checkers to turn the sound up and pay attention. Perhaps Trump had become too enamored of his oratorical gifts from being in settings comprised of supporters. Trump’s performance is unlikely to inspire independents or undecided voters to move his way. Whether his inability to hold his own this debate deflates his supporters enough to prevent voter turnout is the essential question. But there was on display much to dislike about both of them. I suspect that will be the main voter takeaway.

Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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