Hillary Clinton may have won the debate on points. But this debate was not scored on points.
Clinton was obviously better prepared. Famed for his slash and burn approach to debates, Trump was actually a bit less aggressive than Hillary, allowing her to land more blows while he missed some golden opportunities to slide in the dagger. But therein lies the reason he won the debate.
So while pundits picked apart the details of the debate exchanges and gave Clinton the win, they missed the bigger point that Trump’s performance was reassuring.
For Trump, the goal of this debate was not to put points on the board. It was to erase the mainstream media caricature that he is an irrational lunatic who is not fit for the Oval Office. And in that, he succeeded.
This debate was the incarnation of the old maxim: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” And Trump played it like he belonged on the field — which was the main thing he needed to demonstrate.
For millions of Americans, particularly independents, whose main exposure to Trump as a politician has been via the snide condescension of the mainstream media, this was the chance to see if the cartoon reflected reality. It didn’t.
Trump went toe to toe with Clinton, making strong points about trade, jobs, ISIS, and a variety of Hillary Clinton’s failures. He was logical and even temperate, refusing toward the end of the encounter to make the obvious point that the woman charging him with sexism had stayed married to a man whose trail was littered with the broken lives of the women he has abused.
The worst that could be said about Trump is that he was a little thin-skinned, spending too much time responding each time Clinton threw an accusation at him. But who doesn’t want to correct the record when they’ve been maligned? Responding to an attack is something political consultants advise against — but not something viewers would perceive as peculiar.
Clinton was polished, but not necessarily appealing. Over-preparation tends to delete charm.
Hillary’s mocking, supercilious smiles came off as fake, a little reminiscent of Al Gore’s phony sighs during his first debate in 2000 with George W. Bush. She at times dropped so much information into a sentence so quickly that she sounded like the annoying schoolgirl who persistently has their hand up shouting “Me! Call on me!” and then always has the right answer. One of her ambitions for the debate should have been to make Americans like her better. But nobody likes a smarty pants.
Analysts often talk about the built-in advantages Clinton has in, say, the Electoral College or the changing demographics of the nation. But in fact, in this election, Trump starts with the upper hand. With polls showing massive discontent with the direction of the country and anger at Washington and the status quo, this is emphatically a “change” election. And Trump, with his brash style and lack of political experience, represents nothing if not change.
But Americans are not reckless, and they need to feel comfortable that the change they select is not going to make things worse. Just because voters want change doesn’t mean they are seeking instability. And that’s why the main thing keeping Trump from trouncing Clinton has been concern about his volatile personality. So while pundits picked apart the details of the debate exchanges and gave Clinton the win, they missed the bigger point — that Trump’s performance was reassuring.
While Trump didn’t draw as much blood as he might have, he did draw blood where it counted, in ways that made him look like the candidate of change — and even the safer choice.
He repeatedly emphasized that Clinton was a card-carrying member of the political status quo, portraying her as a typical politician who had been “thinking” for “30 years” about solving problems instead of making things happen. Implicit was that he is a man of action who will effect the change voters covet.
Trump also honed in on the mess that Clinton has made of the Middle East, particularly the errors that led to ISIS and her abysmal decision to rip apart Libya. “Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience,” Trump said. “You were secretary of state when it was a little infant,” he said of ISIS. “Now it’s in over 30 countries. And you’re gonna stop them? I don’t think so.”
By reminding viewers of the chaos that Clinton has sown, he made the point that she is not necessarily a “safe” choice. Rather, she’s left the world a very dangerous place.
After Clinton meandered on about the racial divide and the need for police “to restore trust,” Trump promised something simple: safe streets.
“We need law and order,” Trump declared. “We need law and order in the inner cities, because the people that are most affected by what’s happening are African-American and Hispanic people. And it’s very unfair to them what our politicians are allowing to happen.”
Yes, during an exchange on cybersecurity, Trump could have quipped that Clinton knows all about it since her private email system was probably hacked. Yes, he could have brought up the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, and other issues he left lying around.
But by holding back some of his fire, Trump also helped diminish the notion that he shoots from the hip and might be too trigger-happy as president.
In a sense, Trump won by losing.
Keith Koffler is the editor of the website White House Dossier and the newsletter Cut to the News.