Was America Swayed By Last Night's Debates?

The jabs were there. But were they too soft?

Who taught you how to argue? I grew up between Margaret Thatcher and Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, and so I learned how to argue by osmosis, raised in a Nigerian-British household — first in London, then in Lagos — where you were encouraged to have political opinions and then defend them rigorously. It was tiring, and I was not exactly built for it. But we adapt.

At the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University, Clinton looked like a political animal that had learned to adapt. The evidence was there: that shoulder shimmy, and the almost delighted “OK!” when moderator Lester Holt asked the candidates about their sense of judgment; her (genuine?) smiles at several points over the course of the evening. That was Clinton adapting in real time, in front of the nation.

Her face, ever-present thanks to a split screen that showed both the former secretary and her opponent, seemed at rest. Buoyed by her location, and the mock debates she had been participating in, Clinton was easy, making the jokes that she had been advised to get off, even if some had a problem with all that smiling. By contrast, Trump made his customary word salad: “Tremendous” made several appearances, as did the slightly odd sentence constructions we have become used to. On the subject of keeping jobs in the country he ended a long run with: “...new companies will start and I look very, very much forward to doing it.” Still, it wasn’t the weirdest thing he’s ever said.

In a piece for the New Yorker on the long tradition of the televised presidential debate, Harvard professor Jill Lepore set up a dichotomy: Hillary Clinton is a lawyer, where Donald Trump is a brawler. Did it matter on the night? It seemed clear to me that Hillary stormed this first debate. She started it with a shoutout to her granddaughter who was celebrating a birthday, and I wondered if she would be going too soft too soon (#ThePerilsOfRunningAsAWoman). She stumbled with that clumsily built “trumped-up trickle down” catchphrase. But she rallied. Out came a short jab about the loan Trump received from his father (he called it a “small loan”; she called it “$14 million borrowed from his father”). Then she dropped a casual, mansplainy “well, actually” when replying to his query on why she was just now thinking about solutions to fix the economy. At one point, after Trump had gone on about her support for NAFTA, she said, “That is just not accurate.” And when Trump said, “You have no plan,” regarding job creation, she smiled mildly and said, “Oh, but I do.” Then she told him to buy her book.

Donald Trump sniffed loudly and often. He exhaled loudly too, and interrupted (each interrupted the other, over and over). The camera stayed on the two candidates the whole time, and on the evidence offered, I would fancy my chances against Trump in a game of poker (disclosure: I never learned how to play poker). Hillary Clinton had a placid smile on her face for pretty much the duration of the evening, a sort of grim performance art, no doubt drilled into her during extensive debate practice. But it’s possible there was a deeper reason for her relative unruffled mien — a small thing I saw several women tweeting about throughout the night: This wasn’t her (or their) first time at the rodeo. Legendary bluster from a man is something many women have been dealing with since they first learned to speak. Luckily, the only known weapon against word salad is a recently sharpened scythe to cut through it. This was a woman who’d been in the room where it happens.

This is a horse show, where the undecided voters check the teeth and the flanks of the final two — allegedly the best of the bunch — and finally put down coins and buy. 

It wouldn’t do to say Trump landed no blows of his own. He started out looking and sounding as good as he ever has: surprisingly calm and measured. There was a weird moment when he asked if it was okay to call her “Secretary Clinton,” but then he was off. About 15 minutes in, he took a sip of his water. Inevitably, the private server and the emails came up — all 33,000 of them, according to Trump — and Clinton had no comeback beyond a weak mea culpa. But before that came up, the question of Trump’s (still unreleased) tax return was raised. Trump parried with his standard response: He was in the process of being audited (“I’m not complaining about it,” he added charitably) and he had been advised against disclosing it publicly. But he had a tremendous income. Natch. He was unrepentant about his birtherism crusade. He point-blank rejected the premise that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional. The fact checkers were having a whale of a time.

The constancy of the camera on the Trump visage gave us a gallery of looks: He pressed his lips together, he grimaced toothlessly, he did the cobra, and he narrowed his eyes. A few times, he leaned down to the mic to steadily utter, “You’re wrong.” Later, he announced he had the better temperament of the two, but even though he was forceful in saying so, he didn’t sound convinced.

Did Lester Holt let them get away with too much? Yes, he did. They each got extra seconds where they should’ve been expressly cut off. At times, except for when he got a few necessary fact-check nudges in, it was easy to forget he was even there. In the grand scheme, this was not a moderation effort for the ages, but it was serviceable. And anyway, he was not the one we were here to see. He was a school principal on the last day of term, technically still the head of all he surveyed, but with a school full of kids itching to get out for the holidays. When the audience broke their “stay silent” covenant and applauded Trump, Holt paused proceedings and intoned gravely, “Let me just admonish the audience…” They were undeterred: They went on to whoop, ooh, and cheer a few more times before the debate was over.

The debates are a curious thing. They are not exactly for the decided electorate. This is a horse show, where the undecided voters check the teeth and the flanks of the final two — allegedly the best of the bunch — and finally put down coins and buy. Did Clinton calling up the systemic racial injustice faced by African-Americans and Hispanics give an unsure floating voter pause? Did Trump talking about how Clinton’s time in power had not exactly yielded the change she was now promising strike a chord in an adrift Midwestern heart? Who can tell? Luckily, we have two more of these to get through.

Fifty-six years ago (almost) to the day, Alistair Cooke wrote his Guardian dispatch about the first Kennedy/Nixon debate and called both candidates “bloodhounds in party frocks.” The headline screamed: KENNEDY-NIXON DEBATE KILLED BY COURTESY. It wasn’t quite the same conditions on Monday night, but by that same token, we can all agree that the bites were not very sharp. Afterwards, in the spin room, Trump told a reporter that he would’ve gone after Bill Clinton, but for the “respect” he has for the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea. How would that have gone down? It’s hard to know, but having seen vendors selling “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica” T-shirts in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention, I have an inkling. This was a soft beginning.

The gloves may well come off come at Debate #2 on October 9.

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