What you saw at the debate last night depends on who you are
There is something close to a consensus view among pundits that Hillary Clinton “won” the first presidential debate. As has been true throughout the campaign, the pundits are wrong about Trump.
The kind of people who watch a presidential debate with a notepad found Hillary to be well organized, articulate, knowledgeable, and fully presidential. By the conventional rules of the cognitive elite, Trump lost. He was spontaneous, not memorized, emotional, not controlled, and downright angry at times as he reviewed what’s happened to our country over the last decades – the “30 years” Hillary Clinton has been in politics. In a graduate seminar on the economy, he would be flunked for having few facts and a disorganized (spontaneous and emotional) presentation, and for violating the rules of etiquette repeatedly and with gusto.
But for people who have never read a 10- or 12-point economic plan, Trump came across as the guy who is upset over what a raw deal America, and especially blue-collar and middle America, has gotten. For people who remember emotional points of conflict more vividly than the play of ideas, I think Trump planted himself firmly on the side of the 90% of Americans whose incomes have stagnated or declined. His interruptions, anger, and spontaneity, combined with his repeated emphasis on action, not mere words, positioned him as a non-politician, while Hillary came across as a smooth politician, her memorized, focus group-tested points actually working against her in the eyes of the angry and frustrated viewers.
Keep in mind that last night was Act One of a three-act play. Many conservatives are bemoaning Trump’s failure to bring up various vulnerabilities (the email scandal, for instance) of Hillary. But one thing I have learned by watching Trump is that he learns, and he adapts his behavior. This was his first ever one-on-one debate, a very different animal from the nominating contest. I think he tended to revert to form last night. But he and his brilliant staff will analyze the performance, and I expect he will learn.
Charles Krauthammer also learns. He was utterly disdainful of Trump from the start of his entry into politics. But he has watched Trump succeed as his own prognostications crashed and burned repeatedly. And I think that caused him to step out of his own comfortable assumptions and examine Trump’s relationship with the voters. Last night after the debate he spoke to Megyn Kelly:
It was not exactly the knock out fight that we thought. It was a spirited fight. I think in the end it was something like a draw. But I do believe that the draw goes to the challenger in the sense that Trump did not go over the line. And the very fact he could go 90 minutes on the same stage ultimately elevates the challenger, that's just automatic for any debate of that support.
I think he did allow himself to get very defensive and she exploited that. She kept coming back for things where he wasted a lot of time on taxes, on some of the other issues he felt personally about, and, as a result, he missed a lot of opportunities. She presented herself as she always does. Solid, solid, knows her stuff, not terribly exciting but reliable. I think that is the best she can do. Likable, she couldn't but that is not something within her reach.
He contained himself in the sense that I don't think he committed any gaffes but he allowed himself -- she could find out something personal about him that would make him down rabbit holes at a time when he had wide openings to go after her on e-mails and other items, and let them go.
He also created a powerful image among people paying attention for the first time: he’s a man of action angry about the way things have gone, and he’s no politician like any other. Why, he even went into the spin room and spoke for himself.
For a public that is sick of politics as usual, this is not necessarily a bad image.
A friend who is a former professor emailed me:
Trump completely blew it. Considering all aspects of the 95 minutes, it was an embarrassing performance for a potential president. His campaign people better sit him down and read him the riot act.
As a card-carrying holder of graduate degrees, that’s how I would have wanted to do it. It is the organized, intellectually defensible way, and it persuades people who can follow the arguments.
Trump was aiming at a different audience, one that is substantially larger.