I haven’t been very good at picking the winners of these debates. Right after the first debate, before hearing any commentary, I thought it was roughly a draw—not in terms of the objective merits of the two candidates’ pronouncements, but in terms of the likely impact on the electorate. In fact, of course, it was a smash win for Clinton. I thought the second was at best a slight win for Clinton, but it seems to have been a good deal better than that. Last night I again thought Clinton had a slight edge, and this time I may have been right. The CNN poll of its TV audience gave it to Clinton 52-39%. Since CNN’s audience skews Democratic, and since people tend to think their own preferred candidate won, that margin might translate into just a slight improvement over Hillary’s now daunting lead in the polls. That edge I think will widen as the commentary on the debate percolates through the electorate. Anyway, Trump needed a blowout win in this debate and he certainly didn’t get anything like that.
I would have said that the big winner of the debate was Chris Wallace, who in many ways showed what a debate moderator should be, asking pointed, substantive questions and usually following up when the candidates evaded them. But I agree with Paul Krugman that Wallace spoiled his performance by elevating the national debt to a level of issue importance it just shouldn’t rate and by ignoring—completely—the much more important issue of climate change. And I steamed when Wallace made the ridiculous assertion that Obama’s stimulus program “led to” slow economic growth. (The main problem with the stimulus was that it wasn’t big enough.) Hillary should really have taken him to task for that.
Trump showed much better self-control than in the earlier debates. He was even able to minimize those mysterious sniffs that had peppered his speech in the others. I thought he was actually better when he was speaking than when he wasn’t. Trump isn’t good at keeping quiet: he can’t suppress those un-presidential facial expressions–alternately sullen, smirky and squinty-eyed. But even in his speech, his self-discipline gave way. Trump had to be Trump. All the commentators noted his outrageous refusal to pledge to accept the outcome of the election. (Apparently that’s not what his debate coaches wanted him to say.) His arguably equally outrageous assertion that Clinton shouldn’t have been allowed to run for president because of her “crimes” got much less attention. And he certainly didn’t help his cause by interjecting “nasty lady” while Clinton was speaking, but evidently he just couldn’t resist.
Clinton was very, very good: self-confident, forceful and knowledgeable. Whatever you have to say about her, no one could claim that she didn’t look presidential. My continual pet peeve about this campaign has been that people seem to think that Clinton is roughly as dishonest if not more so than Trump, even though Trump is almost surely the most mendacious major party presidential candidate in our history. Trump again repeatedly accused Clinton of lying, and she again chose not to throw that accusation back at him. She could easily have reeled out a whole string of easily demonstrable lies from among the dozens that Trump has told since the beginning of his campaign, starting with his claim to have personally seen thousands of Muslims celebrating on 9/11. She could have pointed out that the fact checker Politifact gave up selecting its lie of the year for 2015 and just named Trump the year’s star liar. She could have quoted Ted Cruz’s characterization of Trump as a pathological liar. It must have been a very deliberate decision of the Clinton campaign not to invoke the l-word, and presumably they had a good rationale for that strategy, but it is frustrating.
The debate in any case probably just confirmed the current trend toward Clinton. I used to think that Trump’s one hope was a big “October surprise” in the form of a major terrorist attack. Now I’m not even sure that would help him. The Clinton campaign has been successful in raising well-justified doubts about Trump’s temperamental fitness to be commander in chief; it’s not clear that any terrorist or other foreign affairs calamity would help him. I have no reason to modify my prediction over two months ago that Clinton would win by a margin comparable to or greater than Obama’s 2008 victory. Thank goodness.