The consensus of the post-debate pundits was that Hillary won. But was her victory as decisive as they said it was? Maybe, or maybe not.
Most of us can agree that Trump came across as woefully inarticulate. One columnist I read on Tuesday morning colorfully described Trump’s mangled sentences as a “weird word salad.”
It's the biggest reason why so many are giving the victory to Hillary following their first debate on TV Monday night. Love her or hate her, at least you could understand what she said most of the time.
Trump, however, seemed to be experiencing a great deal of difficulty in framing sensible, understandable statements. This likely stemmed from his reported lack of preparation for the debate.
Debate preparation is a rehearsal for a performance. Trump reportedly blew off this crucial step in favor of winging it, and it showed. Unfortunately for his campaign, this lack of preparedness gives the impression that he would treat the presidency the same way.
By contrast, Clinton was all-rehearsal and that showed too. She seemed prepared to a fault, right down to the incongruous grin she had plastered on her face throughout much of the 90-minute debate. After all is said and done, the smile seemed to be the device she worked on the most.
The smile was meant to demonstrate that no matter what her opponent says, she can weather it like a happy warrior. It also helped her give off a better impression on TV than Trump. To coin a phrase, smiles trump scowls.
On the other hand, detractors could have interpreted Hillary’s smile as an arrogant smirk signaling that as a member of the political ruling elite, she doesn’t have to take her opponent or his supporters seriously. Instead, she can literally laugh at them.
This was an area that Trump could have attacked her on, but didn’t. For example, he could have hammered her for the “basket of deplorables” statement she made a few weeks ago in which she condemned half of his supporters as racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes and xenophobes. Perhaps if he had prepared, this might have been one of the talking points that could have been drummed into his head for use on the debate stage. But it was not meant to be.
Trump also fell into his unfortunate pattern of name-dropping celebrities. One of his tactics is to drop a celebrity’s name in the context of statements he makes that seek to prove he’s telling the truth. Last night’s examples included Sean Hannity and Neil Cavuto of Fox News. If you don’t believe Trump was against the war in Iraq, don’t take his word for it. Ask Sean Hannity! He’ll back him up on this. That’s not enough? Then ask Neil Cavuto! He knows the truth too!
It got even worse when Trump suddenly blurted out Rosie O’Donnell’s name in the context of … what? Hillary making a point about his ceaseless feuding with celebrities? It was such a nonsensical moment that I neglected to jot down the reason in my notes. If nothing else, it was probably a great moment for Rosie O'Donnell, who was probably tickled pink to be mentioned in this prime-time debate that probably broke viewership records.
But here's the thing: Trump might come across as inarticulate to many -- particularly the pundits who come on TV to expound on these debates after they’re over. But in his weird word-salad way, he speaks a language his constituents have no trouble understanding. He speaks their language, and he's been speaking it ever since he first launched his campaign.
His message, that his opponent is part of a political caste that talks a great game about their experience but upon examination have little to show for it, is a good one. One of his best moments in the debate was when he talked about the country's huge debt and then said it wouldn't be such a terrible thing if the money piling up in the debt column had gone to building a world-class infrastructure such as roads, bridges and airports. But it didn't.
If Trump would only bother to rehearse ways to communicate this message more effectively, then maybe he'll win over the pundits (and possibly undecided voters) following the next two debates, even if his supporters already understand exactly what he’s talking about.
As for Lester Holt and his capabilities as moderator, he's taking heat from some for seeming to grill Trump harder on some factual points than Clinton. He’s also being criticized for not being able to rein in the candidates and control them when they insisted on making additional statements or ran over their allotted times.
I have no real feel for this part of the debate postmortem, particularly because debate moderators almost always come in for criticism afterwards. My opinion generally is that moderators will usually be unsuccessful at controlling presidential candidates because of the very nature of their personalities.
They are Type-A people who think nothing of running roughshod over those who would seek to advise or otherwise control them. Nor do the rules matter much to them either -- something that can be said about either Trump or Clinton, as a matter of fact.