The Debate: First the Movie, Then the Reviews

The post-mortems are often more significant than the event itself. The pre-debate narrative set up Trump to win and Clinton to lose, but it didn't hold up.

The Presidential Debate: First the Movie, Then the Reviews

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during the first presidential debate at Hofstra University on Sept. 26, 2016. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)

As I remarked in my pre-debate post, one of the fascinating things about presidential debates is that the post-mortems are typically more significant than the event itself. Just about everyone cites the example of the first debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, after which instant polling showed Gore the winner… until the media weighed in. They focused not on Bush’s obvious shallowness, but on Gore’s sighs and his alpha moves physically edging into Bush’s territory. The public had declared Gore the winner. The media changed the public’s mind.

Going into the debate this week, the media had set up Trump for a victory. John Yang on the PBS NewsHour predicted that Clinton “would be the grind,” while Trump was “sort of gliding in.” On CNN, Democratic adviser Paul Begala was already working the refs, saying “I worry that we’re going to do theater criticism,” which he clearly thought would be to Clinton’s disadvantage. On NBC Nightly News, we got more of the Trump pre-debate spin that he hadn’t even bothered to prepare, with the suggestion that preparation is what politicians do, not agents of change. (Clinton pounced on this idea in the debate.)

Going into the debate this week, the media had set up Trump for a victory. Clinton was set up to lose.

Even pre-debate polling showed that expectations for Clinton were surprisingly low, especially given her experience. She held only a 10-point lead over Trump among those who predicted a winner. In short, she was set up to lose.

Naturally, winning, especially in politics, is a highly subjective thing. Trump supporters and much of the conservative media that once reviled him as insufficiently right-wing declared him victorious. Conservative radio talking head Hugh Hewitt said Trump won the first 39 minutes, Hillary the rest, and then Trump won “overtime,” whatever that means. The New York Post reported that Trump won over a barroom of Pennsylvania undecideds. Major Garrett at CBS, sounding like a Trump surrogate, twice said Trump spoke with “simplicity and confidence.”

But that wasn’t the media consensus, and consensus is what really matters. Debates take on a narrative, just like everything else in the campaign, and no one could channel-surf through the post-mortems, as I did, without hearing the narrative loud and clear: Trump was terrible. Even a few Republicans, off the record, conceded this. On MSNBC, Hallie Jackson on MSNBC said that a Republican operative called the birther moment “devastating.”

And sometimes they spoke on the record. According to RealClearPolitics, a focus group of Pennsylvania voters convened by GOP pollster Frank Luntz decided Clinton “dominated” the debate.

“Tax question weakened him, birther question destroyed him,” tweeted Luntz.

Trump could have won the election last night. He could have delivered a knockout blow simply by demonstrating a simple command of the issues and controlling his bullying tendencies and ruffled temper. He didn’t.

Republicans and conservatives can say what they like, and they are almost certainly correct when they say (pray) that Trump’s “performance” won’t have any lasting effect, though that in itself is an effect. Trump could have won the election last night. He could have delivered a knockout blow simply by demonstrating a simple command of the issues and controlling his bullying tendencies and ruffled temper. He didn’t. Instead, he might have stanched Clinton’s bleeding. The CNN insta-poll showed Clinton the winner by a whopping 62 percent to 27 percent, the second-largest margin in their polling history. PPP found a smaller margin: 51 percent to 40 percent. Still a clear victory. But the betting sites may be the most sensitive. At Betfair, Clinton went into the debate with a 63.1 percent chance of electoral victory. By the time I went to bed last night at 2:30 a.m., she was up to 69 percent.

So what happened? How did Trump snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? The way he behaved last night like an aggrieved gorilla, the pompous brow-furrowing poses he struck, the tumble of words — often utter nonsense — were no different than what we have become accustomed to from him. But in the past, Trump’s shenanigans, his boasting and bullying and simplistic sloganeering were working, so that even when the press was not particularly taken with Trump, they did grant him his electoral success. They were impressed even as they felt increasingly depressed.

As I wrote last week, that began to change a couple of weeks ago with his birther announcement cum retraction. The media criticized his clumsiness. Being racist is one thing, the media seemed to say. But being sloppy about being racist is almost more unforgivable for the journalists than the racism itself – because it disrespects the media, which, for them, may be a more grievous offense than disrespecting African-Americans.

Trump’s media sin last night was being sloppy. The tricks that had worked in the past didn’t work in a two-person showdown with a competent moderator, and Trump should have known that. In the end, the media ridiculed him for it. On CNN, onetime Obama advisor David Axelrod commented in what could be the critical mantra of the night: “Donald Trump wasn’t prepared. It’s inexplicable.”

The tricks that had worked in the past didn’t work in a two-person showdown with a competent moderator, and Trump should have known that.

Trump is supposed to be shrewd. If he isn’t shrewd, he isn’t anything. Last night, he wasn’t shrewd. He was barely coherent. He was like Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd undergoing his meltdown. He exposed himself.

The media’s disgust — and it was disgust — at his sloppiness could be seen in the clips they showed: the tax return rejoinder that not paying taxes “makes me smart“; the equally sinister rejoinder when Clinton called him out for rooting for the housing crisis so he could benefit by buying property cheap: “That’s called business“; the continuing insistence that he made Obama prove he was born in the United States.

Many pundits settled on the same terminology before the debate: Which Trump would we see, the impulsive, improvisational Trump or the controlled, teleprompter Trump? What no one really expected was this sloppy Trump — the loudmouth on the barstool.

So we got a whole lot of criticism in those post-mortems. (Clinton was barely mentioned, as if Trump had debated himself — which, in a way, he did.) Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell on NBC both said they couldn’t see how he added anyone to his base. Van Jones at CNN underscored what would be another media meme — that he was less concerned about the American people than about himself: “She was able to bait him into worrying about himself.” At MSNBC, Katy Tur called Trump “bombastic.” On PBS, Amy Walter questioned whether he had passed the “presidential judgment” test, and Mark Shields said emphatically he had failed. The headline on this morning: “Trump Loses His Cool.”

But the most interesting take may have been from NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who didn’t mince any words. He called Trump’s foreign policy prescriptions “destabilizing” and “dangerous,” words you never hear about a candidate from a reporter, and he added for emphasis that he was willing to stay up to the wee hours talking about it because “this matters.” He left no doubt that he thought the reason it mattered was that Trump would be disastrous for American foreign policy.

Of course, Trump was so awful — “really bad” was how Democratic adviser James Carville put it — that he has managed to lower the bar even more for the next debate, so in the end he might still emerge victorious. Resurrection stories are a political staple. But his debate last night wasn’t just a failure of performance, which would be bad enough in the media’s eyes. It was a failure of Trump’s own media strategy.

For that, they may not forgive him so easily.


Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.