Those tuning into Monday night’s debate hoping for a reality show—Presidential Apprentice starring Donald Trump—were rewarded with a character-assault boxing match that had virtually nothing to do with the issues involved in running the country. This was bad news for viewers like me who watched in the vain hope that one of these two candidates would pull back the curtain and shed light, however little, on specific policy actions and how they’ll achieve them. It turns out the presidency is so base a job that mere competency is all that’s required.
Debate topics covered jobs, taxes, Trump’s tax returns, race and implicit bias, Trump’s birtherism, cyber security, preventing homegrown terrorist attacks, Trump’s judgment, President Obama’s nuclear policy, and Clinton’s “presidential look.” The night started out with a glimmer of hope as both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton talked, if vaguely, on substantive issues; it devolved quickly, though, with Clinton baiting trap after trap and Trump dutifully springing each one. Debate moderator Lester Holt was the invisible man through the first almost two-thirds of the debate as both candidates dodged his questions, such as they were. The political jiu jitsu benefited Clinton whose graceful pirouetting cut a stark contrast to Trump’s more awkward lumbering. The only significant moments of detailed policy talk came in the beginning when Trump spoke of trade and Clinton of taxes, but even these discussions were less than informative with Trump making no effort to allay concerns that his trade proposals won’t start trade wars and Clinton avoiding specifics on how much revenue would have to be raised through taxes to pay for her proposals.
The debate’s value as an informative discussion on the candidate’s policy proposals fell apart as soon as the subject turned to Trump’s tax returns. Trump seemed to internalize everything from that point on and couldn’t resist responding to every attack as though allowing even one slight to go unanswered would leave him mortally wounded. Trump careened wildly off topic, especially when pressed on more controversial matters such as his tax returns during the tax discussion and his birtherism during the race discussion. Holt conspicuously expressed no interest in Clinton’s judgment regarding her poorly secured email server when asking the secretary about cybersecurity. For her part, Clinton kept sprinkling notions of policy into each section; she commented on the need for better community/police relations and better police training, she repeated her “intelligence surge” explanation as how her foreign policy differs from President Obama’s, and she talked tough on Russian despite her previous efforts (and Obama’s current ones) to reach a less touchy equilibrium with that country. But Clinton’s strategy coming in looked to be one of simply poking Trump in the hopes that he would foam at the mouth in response and do the heavy lifting for her; for much of the debate Trump obliged which spared Clinton any rigorous cross-examination on her proposals.
Despite Clinton’s expressed desire to run a more positive campaign focused on voters and their needs, she used last night’s enormous audience to do the same thing she’s done all along—sidestepping substance in the hope that Trump will be seen as unfit for the office. Unfortunately she continues to do nothing to endear fence sitters to her, and last night’s debate likely did nothing except motivate people who don’t like her and don’t trust her to vote for her for now. The strategy makes sense as the path of least resistance to victory, and it’s a strategy I continue to think will lead her to a modest win providing nothing else goes wrong in her campaign. It strikes me as a sad state of affairs, though, that as voters we’ve gone from seeking greatness (if sometimes not finding it) to hoping for tolerable competency.