For a moment during the run-up to Monday night’s debate, it seemed the showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton might offer some surprises.
Perhaps Clinton would reveal herself to be seriously ill, after all, as he has insisted. Perhaps Trump would display his best Manhattan cocktail party manners and show himself to be a gentleman, incredibly.
Neither happened. If character is revealed under pressure, the high-pressure face-off at Hofstra University in New York revealed two candidates who were exactly the candidates we all expected.
The experienced, uber-prepared, cool-headed Clinton clearly articulated her center-left agenda. Trump – who has spent most of the campaign lying, threatening, jeering and insulting people – interrupted Clinton 25 times in the first half of the debate.
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The presidential debate stage is not a dinner theater musical comedy; it is an audition for the biggest job in the world. And Trump’s mugging and bullying demeanor was unbecoming at best. There is no analogous presidential debate performance in American history.
He shrugged off facts as “mainstream media nonsense,” bragged that “I know how to win,” invoked his friends shock jock Howard Stern and sycophant Sean Hannity as neutral arbiters of his conduct.
He claimed that the unconstitutional “stop and frisk” program in New York was not so, and threw in a fat-shaming comment about an imaginary 400-pound person who might have hacked into Democratic emails. Weird. And he claimed to have a temperament that was the more presidential. If he does, he didn’t display it.
By any objective and traditional measure, Clinton got the best of Trump. She was clearer than Trump laying out her proposals on tax cuts, clean energy, jobs and police shootings.
When the debate turned to foreign policy and national defense, there was no comparison. Clinton came off as a calm commander in chief. Trump appeared erratic and repeated his false claim that he opposed the Iraq War from the start and recycled his bad ideas on NATO and other issues.
Clinton cited Trump’s “cavalier attitude about nuclear weapons” and repeated her line that a man who can be provoked by a tweet should not be allowed near nuclear codes. That’s an old line, Trump said. But it’s a good line, she answered. And she was right.
Trump faced the enormous task of making himself palatable to people of color. He had nowhere to go but up – and he went down.
African Americans, in particular, have dismissed Trump as racist. He’s polling in the single digits among that demographic. And with vows to build a wall along with Mexican border, create a “deportation force” to end illegal immigration and oust Muslims who don’t pass some sort of American litmus test, he’s alienated millions of other voters.
He failed miserably in his answers about race relations and birtherism. He continued his tone deaf message of recent weeks that the black community has been mistreated by Democrats, upping the ante and declaring that black and Latino Americans are “living in hell.”
It’s tough to see how he can win the presidency without expanding his base. And yet, Trump continues to bill himself as the “law and order candidate,” with promises to get tougher on crime and move away from the national dialogue about racial bias in policing.
Entering the debate, Trump’s job was to look presidential and show himself to be acceptable to fence-sitters. Clinton’s job was to maintain the high ground, and reach out to undecided voters. Polls in the coming days and on Nov. 8 will show for sure how they fared. But on one night in New York, Clinton clearly confirmed that she is prepared for the Oval Office, and Trump did not.