How Hillary Clinton’s Pitch-perfect Put-downs May Have Changed the Race

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The debate stage.Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the first 2016 presidential debate.

Going into last night’s debate, polls showed Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump continuing to shrink. But a CNN/ORC instant poll right after the debate found that she’d won it by more than a two-to-one margin. Should her performance last night be enough to move the needle back?
We’ll have to wait for polls a few days from now for the answer to that question. But let’s pause for one moment to savor how Clinton performed last night. My heart sank with her first answer, to a question about job creation: her usual diligent wonky A-student’s recitation of a list of prefab economic proposals that the brain instantly tunes out, that no one thinks will ever happen, and that have been promised by Democratic politicians in every presidential election since Carter and then Mondale were slaughtered by Ronald Reagan.

But what followed was something of a miracle: Hillary from then on mustered a pitch-perfect response to the boor on the other side of the split screen. She stuck to substance (of which he had none) and waited out his diatribes (many long waits) either by looking slightly bemused or by outright laughing at his absurdities. She refused to get lost in the weeds of his many lies and factual errors — urging viewers to consult fact-checkers online instead — and allowed herself some actual wit. “If we’re actually going to look at the facts … ” she said early on, throwing the line away lightly but devastatingly (though her target seemed oblivious to the dig). When Trump went on and on to try to pin his own birtherism campaign on her, a foolhardy errand in which he assumed the audience understood his oblique references to Sidney Blumenthal and Patti Solis Doyle, she retorted, smilingly, with “Just listen to what you heard.” It was a perfect response, directing the audience simply to watch her opponent as he choked on his own incoherent gusher of words. And when Trump went on his bizarre tear about how he had really, truly been opposed to the Iraq War early on, and how Sean Hannity could vouch for him despite all the evidence to the contrary, she replied with an even bigger smile and the mot juste for the moment: “O-kay!”

Finally, there was that great final-round climax when she refused to allow Trump, who tried to brush past the fact that he had attacked her for not having a “presidential look,” to change the subject from “looks to stamina,” as she put it. She cited a number of his misogynistic slurs, then brought it home with a fresh incident, his referring to a beauty-pageant contestant who didn’t meet his physical standards as “Miss Housekeeping” because she was Hispanic. It was a tough and stirring moment, for which Trump could muster no better response than another attack on Rosie O’Donnell. Sad!

All that said, the margin in the instant debate-night poll was virtually the same as the margin that had Mitt Romney killing Barack Obama in the first debate of 2012. I will say for the hundredth time that the one thing Trump is right about is that his supporters would still vote for him if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. And they will still vote for him after this debate. This was a big night for fact-checking by a plethora of major news organizations, but what’s lost in this frenzy of media empiricism, worthy as it is, is that Trump’s supporters don’t care about the facts any more than he does. This election is a culture war, not a debate over policy, and in that war Trump is the white-guys’ guy.

So the practical question coming out of the debate is not whether Clinton turned some Trump supporters to her side (surely not), or vice versa (also not). It is simply: Did Clinton arouse more enthusiasm among millennials, white and black and Hispanic, who were never going to vote for Trump but might vote for Gary Johnson or skip Election Day altogether? I would hope so, but I certainly don’t know.

This was Trump’s first one-on-one debate, with less room to hide than he had on the crowded stage of the primaries. Did the spotlight, and a few pointed follow-up questions, show you anything new about how Trump responds to pressure?
It’s hard to know how he could have performed worse. He obviously was true to his own pre-debate spin in one respect — it was clear he really did no preparation. His “policies” were content-free. Even the zingers he was supposedly stocking up were nowhere to be found. His main subject, the only one he was passionate about, was himself. Otherwise, he recycled the same old rants ad infinitum. His sole points seemed to be (1) America is a Third World shithole; (2) every other politician is “a disaster”; (3) only he can make everything great again. And his style was, if anything, worse than his content (if not as vacuous). He constantly interrupted Clinton as if he owned the joint and she was an uppity underling. I’d call it mansplaining, except Trump didn’t even offer up the mansplanations to go with his obnoxious attitude. He was Ralph Kramden without the wit: I kept half-expecting him to bellow, “Hillary, you’re going to the moon!” And his over-the-top facial expressions as she gave her answers were, dare I say it, Al Gore–like in their impatience, petulance, and general asininity. All this from a man who went on at considerable lengths to brag about how he has “a much better temperament than Hillary.”

To the vast delight of the internet, Howard Dean tried to explain this performance by tweeting: “Notice Trump sniffing all the time. Coke user?” I doubt it, given Trump’s germ phobia and aversion to alcohol. But if he were on cocaine, how would that explain his alternately churlish and meandering presentation? Not what I’d call coked up. Maybe he was OD-ing on his real drug of choice, McDonald’s.

The moderator, Lester Holt, couldn’t resist some mid-debate fact-checking — like practically everyone else, it seems — but once the candidates got going he largely stepped out of the way. Was this the right strategy?
To his credit, Holt tried to call out Trump on his Iraq War claims, but otherwise he was almost a phantom presence, with no authority or control over the proceedings. His role model could have been Mr. Cellophane in the musical Chicago. He’d tell Trump he had “just ten seconds” to give a rejoinder and then disappear as Trump went on ad infinitum. One way to look at this is that Holt was just the latest NBC anchor (after Joe Scarborough and Matt Lauer) to tilt toward the former star of the network’s Apprentice. But in the end, Holt’s refusal to police Trump’s filibusters, intentionally or not, was a boon to Clinton: As Trump just went on and on unchecked, and she could be seen on the other side of the screen watching with borderline delight as he talked himself into one free-associative cul-de-sac after another, it all accrued to her benefit. It was one smart woman against two less-than-brilliant bros, and, should we still care about such distinctions, she looked like a president while in the end they both seemed to just fade away.