I did it. Heaven help me, I did it. I watched the entire first presidential debate, from beginning to end.
I took only a few notes as I watched. But you can watch it yourself here or read a transcript here, and of course there will be multitudes offering to tell you what the candidates said and what it means and what you should think. There are already lots of fact-checkers too, and if I ever see one who appears nonpartisan, I’ll let you know.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t have time for the pregame chatter over the past few days, and I wasn’t interested in all the immediate postmortems, where everyone tries to spin the thing as if it were exactly what they wanted it to be.
Within minutes of the end, people were asking me who won the debate. I’ll answer that in a moment, but it’s not that simple.
Keys to the Game
Both candidates did some of the key things they had to do. Mrs. Clinton had to appear healthy and strong to the end, and she did. Mr. Trump had to appear basically sane, and his lowbrow charisma had to come through even without constant feeding on applause; he did, and it did — as far as I can tell when it doesn’t work on me.
She had to sound presidential, and it was a close call for a while, but eventually she did, in speaking of our commitments to our allies. He couldn’t look like a bully or a nuclear cowboy, and he didn’t — tonight, that is. She had plenty of ammunition to launch from his past excesses, on those themes among others.
She had to be the elder, seasoned statesman and leader, in command not only of the facts but also the vision and the room. As much as reasonably possible, he had to avoid looking like a rookie. And here’s where we start to pick a winner.
- Most but not all of the time, Mr. Trump had Mrs. Clinton playing his game, and sounding wonky, condescending, even sometimes childish in her responses — and sounding canned, which doesn’t play well either. Mr. Trump had the moderator playing his game too; on a tactical level, it starts to look like leadership.
- Mrs. Clinton fired off a dizzying volume of statistics. First of all, that doesn’t reach people, except the small minority of policy wonks. Second, the more statistics you spout, the less we trust you or your statistics, no matter who you are. Third, when most of the voters already think you’re dishonest, well . . .
My general impression was that it was a childish, somewhat unskilled debate. In that climate, the smart money is on Mr. Trump every time, because he’s not the one who’s been on the national political stage for decades, and he’s not the one people generally expect to act his age, give or take.
Soundbites (Not a Laundry List)
Of course, the evening was full of soundbites — mostly rehearsed, I suspect — that will have the campaigns, the media, and other seagulls and vultures chirping and circling until the next debate, at least. Nothing is more predictable.
For example, on the subject of Mr. Trump’s unreleased tax returns, which deserved about five percent of the attention they got, if that . . .
- She said there’s “something terrible that he’s trying to hide.”
- He said, “I’ll release my tax returns when she releases her 33,000 e-mails.”
That volley went to Mr. Trump.
Speaking of soundbites, I heartily dislike the mouthpiece, and I’m not a Republican any more, but I’m still a conservative. So I did enjoy hearing a Republican candidate say to a liberal, “We don’t have the money, because it’s been squandered on so many of your ideas.”
For all the soundbites, the 90-minute debate, rather like the campaign, was frustratingly short on coherent explanations of policy positions and clear visions that might appeal to Americans. It was overflowing with accusations and rebuttals. She preached to him about being president and a candidate for president; he pounded his chest less than in some stump speeches but more than he should have.
I’ve never been a candidate, but I’ve moderated debates, and I’ve coached candidates for debates on smaller stages. So I’ll put the rest of my thoughts in that context, in the hope of giving you more of the flavor of the evening.
If Mrs. Clinton came to me and asked me how to do better next time — by the way, she does better in debates or highly-rehearsed major speeches than in stump speeches, where she’s often shrill — here’s what I’d say.
- You must spend a lot more time clearly, passionately explaining why you should be president and where you want to take the country, instead of trying to push Mr. Trump’s buttons and rehash the same attack points we’re already tired of. Most of us — maybe 100 million of us were watching this first debate — already know all the reasons why neither of you should president. We’re pretty unclear about the reasons why either of you should — and that’s your opportunity.
- You cannot be the one to preach to us about cyber-security, at least not without a brilliantly artful, heartfelt (even if it isn’t) mea culpa. People who don’t trust you — did I mention that’s most of the voters? — notice these things.
- Speaking of those eye-rolling ironies you should try to minimize, you cannot gleefully send us to hillaryclinton.com for fact-checking. It makes you look detached from reality. You could have scored some counterintuitive points with the audience by gently urging the moderator to stop fact-checking Mr. Trump, since (a) it’s not his job, and (b) he wasn’t fact-checking you.
- Use two-thirds fewer statistics next time. They have more credibility in smaller quantities. When you bury us with them, we don’t digest them, and we don’t trust them or you. If one-third of tonight’s quantity is still too much, we’ll reduce it further for the last debate.
- The more you want to respond to what Mr. Trump just said, the more you should stick to what you have to say about yourself, your plans, your vision. Otherwise, before you know it, you’ve gone childish, you’ve met him at his level. That works for him and against you. And you tend to talk in fits and starts when you do that; it doesn’t sound good, strong, or presidential. Stick to your message, and confine yourself to a maximum of one riff per debate about your opponent’s unfitness.
- When you tell us, “The birther lie was a very hurtful one,” and then explain how it hurt President Obama’s feelings, you and he both look weak. He’s expendable now, but you cannot afford to look weak. And you should probably stay away from the birther thing altogether, since your people helped start it in your 2008 primary contest with him. People know that by now, and it reminds them that they think you’re duplicitous.
- Play to a larger audience than your base. You cannot — speaking of the birther thing — call it Trump’s “racist, birther lie.” No one outside of your admittedly vast echo chamber finds that racist. You just look like you’re playing the race card — and with most of the voters you need to sway at this point, that just doesn’t play.
- Speaking of things that don’t play, stop talking as if Mr. Trump will play Russian roulette with the nuclear launch codes. He may be an over-the-top narcissist, but nobody outside the bubble thinks he’s an Ayatollah.
- Call him Mr. Trump. Be respectful. He beat you on that one tonight. And find a better response to his interruptions than interrupting him. Be above that.
- In short, stay on message, stop talking as if you think 50.1 percent of voters are policy wonks who already support you, and try assuming for once that people respond better to being inspired than to being bribed, condescended to, or threatened with Trumpocalypse.
If Mr. Trump came to me and asked how to do better next time — which is equally likely — I’d say:
- Stop sniffing into the microphone.
- Interrupt the other candidate less often.
- If the moderator will let you shut him off like this one did, go for it, within reason — and once it’s clear he’s on her side. That worked well tonight. Be careful not to strut about it, during or after the debate. (Not that you did tonight. But you will.)
- That said, if the moderator is female, you won’t get away with manhandling her the way you did Lester Holt tonight. Don’t plan to, don’t try to. Instead of looking like strength, it will highlight your liabilities.
- Never again should you defend that old Justice Department lawsuit against you for racial discrimination. You settled without admitting guilt? So what? It’s weak. It’s lame. And don’t be so smug in rebuttal about having a club in Florida which admits all races, for which others have praised you. Just say, “That lawsuit was a long time ago. A lot of things were like that back then. We were wrong. We’ve learned. We don’t do that any more.” Or you could say “I.”
- Instead of just talking about how you’ll lower taxes on corporations, talk about how we have the highest corporate income tax in the modern world, and how that drives jobs out of the country. People will grasp that more easily, and you’ll be less vulnerable to her arguments that your proposals are guided by your own business interests.
- Don’t go after her stamina again. She won that round — handily and predictably. You looked petty and almost desperate.
- Save your best “Crooked Hillary” bullet points for the last debate. She’s firing off too many of her barbed weapons too soon. Then consider not using all of yours. Everyone already knows them. A lot of people want to hear someone stand up to her about them, but you should pummel her with them less than you want to. Pick just one or two. A good choice might be her well-documented hostility to any American in a uniform. Another might be her making light of the deaths of four Americans on her watch in Libya. These will play better than going after those FBI files, which most people don’t remember, or attacking her for attacking her husband’s accusers (or victims), which you could do — but going after a marriage is dicey, especially outside the bubble, where people still respect the institution. And don’t say too much about her corruption. Talk radio has that covered, and we actually don’t trust you enough that you can point fingers there with credibility.
- Keep addressing her respectfully as “Secretary Clinton” or “Mrs. Clinton,” as you did often but not always tonight. If she insists on calling you Donald, she looks disrespectful and condescending — and you don’t.
- How about throwing us all a change-up and talking in the third debate, at least, about all the things that are good in America? We know the negatives. Give us cause for hope!
Coaching the Moderator
If Mr. Holt — who has a great voice and a competent manner — came to me to ask how to be a better moderator, I’d say:
- Don’t jump in to protect Mrs. Clinton as you did a few times in the first half hour. It makes her look weak, and it makes you look as if you’re trying to protect her. But you don’t need me to say that; they’ve already flayed you for it, haven’t they?
- You’re not the fact-checker, and you especially shouldn’t be an overtly one-sided fact-checker, even if you believe hers and not his. That reinforces Mr. Trump’s theme that the big media acronyms are against him and firmly in her camp — and you don’t hurt him at all when you do that.
- If you chastise the audience — which wasn’t supposed to applaud — for applauding Mr. Trump, you have to chastise them for applauding Mrs. Clinton too. Again, most of the country thinks you personally, or at least the big media acronyms in general, are in the tank for Mrs. Clinton, and this just gives them more ammunition.
- Don’t ask stupid questions like that last one — if your opponent wins, will you accept the results of the election? Seriously, what are the alternatives? Staging a coup? Leaving the country? Planeloads of lawyers? Everyone knows the first two won’t happen and the third will, if it’s close. The answers are pointless. Ask something useful or at least interesting.
- No doubt they’re already roughing you up for letting Mr. Trump manhandle you. Next time — if you ever get a second chance — don’t do that. That said, I thought you generally erred on the side of letting the candidates talk, which is excellent.
- Some moderators make the debate about them. You didn’t, and that was good. Next time, don’t. Again.
- We got through about four minutes of the debate before Mrs. Clinton started overtly baiting Mr. Trump to be himself. I wonder if you might have been able to keep us on substance for several more minutes, at least, with a timely intervention or two just then. It would have been an act of service to the viewers, giving them a little more substance before they start getting what they tuned in for.
All of that said, I can’t imagine any of these people seeking my advice.
A Final Lamentation
Early in the debate, the moderator asked Mr. Trump, “How do you make [companies] bring the jobs back?”
Was Ronald Reagan the last presidential candidate who was thoughtful enough, articulate enough, and conservative enough to hit that one out of the park? Will we someday have another candidate who can respond like this? . . .
“We don’t make companies come back. We don’t make them stay. That’s the difference between me and my opponent, and between my party and the other party. That’s the difference between most Americans and the folks in Washington who think they know better. Instead of forcing them to do what we want, we create a climate with our tax policies, and by restraining our urges to regulate everything that moves, in which they want to stay – to which they want to return, to which they can afford to return, where they can thrive. We lower their taxes dramatically and close their favorite loopholes at the same time, pursuing growth and fairness simultaneously. If we do it right, we get them back, and we keep them here. Then they contribute to our economy and tax base instead of someone else’s.”
That would also be a good time to mention that we’re Americans. We don’t trust government with the massive power required to decide who has too much, to take it from them, and to pass it to those we think deserve more. Mrs. Clinton is a little scary that way, and Mr. Trump doesn’t call her on it.
But enough. All this is one guy’s opinion. What’s yours?