Debating the Debate

In a hyperpartisan year, pundits on the left and the right found something they can agree on.

Debating 2016's First Presidential Debate

In an unusual move for a presidential nominee, Donald Trump himself continued making his case after the debate in the media "spin room" at Hofstra University. (Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

No sooner was the debate over than commentators went into action providing what used to be called “instant analysis.” Actually, the campaign after-game show is more tropism than analysis — a venting of emotion that, in this campaign, I have to admit, is decidedly warranted for all its intellectual insufficiency. What strikes me from my own quick survey is how much consensus unfolded, and how quickly.

“The Trump train derailed,” wrote Sally Kohn on “By all traditional standards of debate,” wrote David Gergen, the maestro of conventional wisdom, “Mrs. Clinton crushed. She carefully marshaled her arguments and facts and then sent them into battle with a smile. She rolled out a long list of indictments against Donald Trump, often damaging. By contrast, he came in unprepared, had nothing fresh to say, and increasingly gave way to rants. As the evening ended, the media buried him in criticisms….Trump certainly blew it.” Failing to take note of the cogent argument of political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck to the effect that “game-changing” moments in presidential campaigns are as scarce as Republican acknowledgments that global warming has human causes, Gergen mused: “Perhaps Hillary did lock up the race Monday night.” But it’s absurd to think that good or bad moments lock up races one way or the other.

The best Gergen could say for Trump was that he wasn’t dead yet (“I doubt she has put him away”), while the worst he could say for Clinton was that she “seemingly struggled in the debate to create closer emotional bonds with voters.” How he discerned the intensity of her bonds, or the lack of such, he did not disclose. Rather, to me, and to the students in Hong Kong with whom I watched the proceedings, Gergen missed one of Clinton’s better moments, which came in response to the following Trump statement:

“My strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win….Secretary Clinton,… [at an AFL-CIO event] you were totally out of control. I said, there’s a person with a temperament that’s got a problem.”

Channelling what was likely many voters’ reaction to this particular line of reasoning, if that is not too strong a word, Clinton erupted with a half-incredulous, half-jubilant “Whoo” (distorted by the Washington Post transcript as “Whew”). This drew a laugh from the Hofstra University crowd. Meanwhile, if Trump drew any laughs Monday night, I missed them.

Meanwhile, in The New York Times, under the headline “Night of the Terrible Trump,” Gail Collins opened with this blast: 

“Trump lost. Really, I think we can work under the assumption that when a candidate is accused of cheering for the housing crisis, it’s not a good plan to reply: ‘That’s called business, by the way.'”

That was for openers. Collins then rose to one of her acerbic crescendos about Trump:

“He made faces. Viewers had to sit all night in front of a split screen, watching one of the candidates grimacing, pouting and smirking. Over on her side, Clinton looked — pretty darned normal.”

In the morning paper, The Times’ Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin would single out one of Trump’s less-normal ripostes and Clinton’s exasperated reply:

“Mr. Trump hurled so many accusations at Mrs. Clinton…that she found herself saying at one point, ‘I have a feeling that by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.’
‘Why not?” Mr. Trump shot back.
‘Why not? Yeah, why not,’ Mrs. Clinton replied. ‘You know, just join the debate by saying more crazy things.’”

On the other hand, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, The Times’ idea of an enlightened conservative, huffed that “on most issues, Mrs. Clinton relaxed into wonkery — especially on national security — and delivered wooden lines about eagerly awaiting fact-checks.” Brooks seems to consider an argument (as opposed to a blunt assertion) to be wonkish if it goes on for more than a sentence before changing the subject.

Even some conservatives, having set the expectation bar as low as dirt, were underwhelmed by his performance.

By the way, I actually disagree strongly with Clinton’s refusal to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons, but fail to see what was wonkish about the standard case she made for deterrence (which Clinton delicately hid behind the anodyne language of “honoring” “mutual-defense treaties”). Euphemism, yes, but “wonkery?” As for the fact-checks that offended Brooks, it’s true that Clinton mentioned them three times, but to this observer her lines seemed more snappy — even jovial — than wooden. Well, you know about the eye, and ear, of the beholder.

Even some conservatives, having set the expectation bar as low as dirt, were so underwhelmed by his performance as to be reduced to incoherence. S. E. Cupp, author of Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity, overlooked Clinton’s rebuttals of Trump’s talking points and knocked Clinton for frequently “punt[ing] at opportunities to point out how ill-informed and unprepared Trump is. Instead, [Clinton] preferred to argue his vague platform on its merits.” Imagine, making an argument on merits! “For Clinton,” Cupp resumed, “this wasn’t damaging, but it didn’t move the needle in her favor.” Cupp did not disclose how she knew.

J. D. Vance, the best-selling author of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, concluded mysteriously:

“Clinton stands a good chance of succeeding where Trump’s earlier rivals failed. But she either doesn’t care, or doesn’t know how, to learn the lessons of a defeated Republican establishment. That should worry not just her supporters, but anyone who wants a politics that raises the level of public discourse.”

What Vance meant by “learning the lessons of a defeated Republican establishment” escapes me.

Actually, on the subject of the Republican anti-establishment, the best comment of all, mirthful and ironic all at once, was delivered by Mark Twain, quite a while ago — in 1887, in fact — when Twain confided to his notebook these prescient words about the credo of Donald Trump: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then Success is sure.” But as another great American sage, Bob Dylan, said many years later, for Donald Trump “there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.