Trump missed opportunities to exploit her weaknesses, yet managed to clear the low bar of expectations.
Hillary Clinton demonstrated a command of policy on Monday night, and a cool confidence that she was more prepared than Donald Trump to be commander in chief. By the end of the first presidential debate, Trump looked peeved and distracted. He didn’t get in a clever one-liner to defang Clinton’s criticisms. The media’s focus groups of undecided voters (on CNN and FOX) rated Clinton as the clear debate winner.
But when it comes to the political impact of the first debate, don’t expect the fundamentals of this competitive race to change much. Trump, despite his cavalier attitude beforehand, demonstrated a seriousness that was lacking throughout the Republican primary. He didn’t resort to immature insults, relying instead on prepared talking points. Most importantly, while he struggled to advance many of his arguments, his overall criticism of the administration’s handling of ISIS and the Iran deal, along with his references to racial unrest and rising crime, have the potential to win over undecided voters. Voters may credit Clinton with her knowledge of specifics, but many are closer to Trump on instinct.
At a time when Americans want change, he came close to passing the admittedly low threshold of looking like an acceptable commander in chief. At the same time, he missed many opportunities to hit Clinton on her biggest political vulnerabilities—the Benghazi scandal, her personal email server, her support for sanctuary cities, and her close ties to Wall Street firms.
Polls later this week will determine whether Clinton received a bounce from her performance. But given the fundamentals of the race—voters believe the country is on the wrong track, and are looking for a credible alternative—Trump can probably leave Long Island feeling he escaped the bout without suffering a decisive blow.
Clinton put Trump on the defensive about his taxes, while avoiding similar questions about the security of her email server. As a candidate who needs to energize her party’s African-American base, she landed punches against Trump over his support for the “birther” movement. And her most effective line of the night was one that underscored her readiness for the job. “You criticize me for preparing for this debate,” she said. “And, yes, I did. Do you know what else I prepared for? I also prepared to be president.”
But the debate also served as a reminder that many of the issues in this election favor Republicans. Trump got off to a solid start by demonstrating his populist credentials on trade, forcing Clinton to defend her flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His repeated argument that the Obama administration’s premature withdrawal from Iraq allowed ISIS to metastasize is bound to ring true to many voters. Clinton’s defense of the Iran deal was well-prepared, but Trump’s argument that the U.S. paid $150 billion to a terror-supporting state is tough to counter.
If a more articulate Republican had been on the stage last night, he would have been able to more effectively prosecute these glaring Democratic vulnerabilities. But Trump scored points by simply bringing the issues up. It was also his first one-on-one debate, and he’s apt to be more formidable in the next two if he’s able to keep his cool even as he zeroes in on Clinton’s weaknesses.
In a normal political environment, Clinton would be well on her way to the presidency. She still is the favorite in this race. But the same people who dismissed Trump on Monday for demonstrating a more refined version of his candidacy so far are overlooking why his plain-spoken message resonated in the first place.