When it comes to contests, America does not like nuance. It wants a winner and a loser.
But both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had grounds to claim victory after Monday night’s first presidential debate.
The early part of the debate was the most telling as the candidates traded barbs on the economy. Trump criticized Clinton on trade deals, correctly calling her out on her initial support of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership as the “gold standard” of trade deals.
Clinton, however, hit him hard on his business practices, including his many bankruptcies and his refusal to release his taxes. It’s going to become harder for Trump to avoid disclosure. He should release them now.
Trump largely was not the grenade-launcher of the GOP primary debates, the loose cannon who verbally assaulted his foes. Unfortunately, he maintained his habit of interrupting his opponent and offering irrelevant asides. And he continued to skirt issues by regularly offering neither substance nor specifics, most notably when moderator Lester Holt asked Trump twice to say how he would create jobs.
His analysis of the nation’s roiling race relations was distressingly superficial. Trump incorrectly contradicted Holt and Clinton when he said stop-and-frisk was not declared unconstitutional in New York City. Perhaps most egregiously, his answer to healing racial problems focused on his endorsements by police organizations and by overstating how violent cities are. But his focus on law and order likely played well with many voters who worry about protests they see in the streets. Yet his continued defense of his role in the birther controversy is both false and illogical.
As for whether voters would see in either a potential president, Clinton landed a strong blow that drew applause from the audience at Hofstra University. In response to Trump’s charge that she wasn’t on the campaign trail the last few days, Clinton said she was preparing for the debate. “I prepared to be president and I think that’s a good thing,” she said. Clinton was in command throughout the debate, at times flustering Trump and offering a stronger example of a leader.
The debate was the first of three, and possibly the most critical. It was the first one-on-one faceoff for Trump, and the first opportunity to land a potentially decisive blow in the final chapter of a crazy campaign that now seems to be a dead heat.
When the talking was done, it was clear there was one indisputable winner: Hofstra. With only two months to prepare after Wright State University reneged on its hosting duties, the college pulled it off and in so doing rescued the Commission on Presidential Debates. For the third straight presidential cycle, Hofstra staged a safe and smooth debate, and helped re-introduce Long Island to the nation and, this time, a sizeable worldwide audience.
Trump met the low-bar expectations that he could survive 90 minutes on stage with Clinton. Clinton kept her cool and her smile, while raising sharp doubts about Trump’s strength as a businessman and his ability to stay focused. As the debate wound on, Trump rambled down a series of rabbit holes.
Ultimately, the real story of any presidential debate is whether the voters won. Those who already have made their minds up about a candidate got plenty of reinforcement. In the next few days, every line will be dissected and spun to convince the rest.
On Monday night, neither candidate lost. But the nation won when both said they would support the outcome of the election. Given the divisiveness of the campaign and the electorate, that was a good beginning to the campaign’s final phase. – The editorial board