The Debate Was a Political Car Crash

September 29, 2016

It was a record-breaker. The Nielsen ratings say 84 million Americans watched Monday’s presidential debate, and most stayed glued to their sets. There was no significant drop-off in viewership as the evening progressed.

Perhaps these viewers hoped to be impressed by what they heard. What they got, however, was a political car crash, with tires screeching, bumpers crumpling and glass breaking.

Donald Trump presented himself as the candidate who can bring change to America. He derided the current economy and the state of the nation, decried precarious world security and depicted Hillary Clinton as a 30-year Washington politician. But these moments were too few. For much of the evening he was on his heels.

Mrs. Clinton deftly and relentlessly attacked him as unqualified and unfit for office. She criticized his business practices and refusal to release his tax returns. She pointed to his multiple bankruptcies and failure to pay contractors. She dredged up old quotes about global warming, recounted a 1973 discrimination lawsuit against his company, and recalled his misogynistic comments—even pointing out one of his targets, a former Miss Universe, in the audience.

Mr. Trump’s retorts were flip and undisciplined. When Mrs. Clinton said that he got started in business by borrowing $14 million from his father, he dismissed it as “a very small loan.” When she alleged that “he’s paid nothing in federal taxes,” Mr. Trump responded: “That makes me smart.” When she brought up his 2006 statement that he hoped for a housing crisis, since it would be a moneymaking opportunity, he replied: “That’s called business.” She reminded viewers that nine million people lost jobs and five million lost homes when the catastrophe came in 2008. Mr. Trump’s glib moments provide ammunition for her future attack ads.

Neither candidate shored up any principal area of weakness. Mrs. Clinton failed to show why she represents significant change from President Barack Obama’s agenda and did little to counter Mr. Trump when he effectively painted her as more of the same.

Mr. Trump failed to reassure voters that he is up to the job. Offering instead tired sound bites, he was thin on substance and short on new detail. While he called out her dissembling about her past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, he missed opportunities to prosecute her over her email server, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, and her constant failure to tell the truth.

He must have realized he was losing, because Mr. Trump looked increasingly unhappy. It showed in his body language, demeanor and tone. He was rude and unlikable. Perhaps he had been put on edge by too many advisers hectoring him in the green room before he went on.

Still, the debate probably won’t change much. Mr. Trump’s status as the candidate of change compensates for many of his shortcomings. Mrs. Clinton’s skill at attacking him doesn’t offset that she represents the status quo, when an overwhelming majority of voters believe America is going in the wrong direction.

The race was close before Monday’s debate and remains so: Mrs. Clinton leads by 2.9% in the Real Clear Politics average. But more battleground states have come into play in recent weeks, giving Mr. Trump more paths to victory.

The next debate, an Oct. 9 town hall at Washington University in St. Louis, could provide surprises, especially if both candidates learn the wrong lesson from this week’s showdown.

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