What’s the point of a presidential debate?
You could, if you were so inclined, distill Monday’s marquee clash between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University to a single iconic incident: Trump sniffling several times per sentence, perhaps, or Clinton debuting a new dance move.
This would be in keeping with how past debates have been covered (and remembered). Nixon looked clammy and cadaverous under the klieg lights, propelling Kennedy to the presidency. Reagan uttered the magic words “There you go again,” reducing Carter to rubble. Gore sighed; Bush won. And so on.
In the age of mass media — and of the tightly controlled style of campaigning that has arisen in response — debate viewers have come to see gaffes, quips and other unanticipated moments as revelations: rare glimpses of who the candidates really are.
This isn’t surprising, and it isn’t wrong. The big moments matter. But they aren’t the only things that matter.
Beyond the memes, tweets and viral videos — beyond the hot takes and expectations gaming — it’s worth remembering that two potential leaders of the free world stood toe-to-toe on live television for a full 90 minutes Monday night.
Not every aspect of their presidential mettle was tested; as longtime political reporter Elizabeth Drew has noted, we rarely learn much about a candidate’s “thoughtfulness, study, depth, patience [or] the ability to draw the most useful information out of advisers and arrive at the wisest policy” from his or her performance on the debate stage.
Yet Monday’s debate did test other qualities — qualities that 21st century Americans tend to consider carefully when choosing a president. Command of the issues. Truthfulness. Temperament. Emotional connection. Stage presence. And yes, each candidate’s ability to “create a moment” — a key part of getting through to voters who are constantly distracted by the dinging of their smartphones.
And so, as the dust settles at Hofstra, Yahoo News has decided to step back, consider the entire event, and grade Trump and Clinton in each of these categories.
A debate isn’t a reality show. It’s a job interview. What Trump’s and Clinton’s performance Monday tells us about their possible performance in office.
Command of the issues
No one expected Trump — a political novice who has shown little tolerance for debate prep or policy briefings — to display a greater command of the issues than a former first lady, senator and secretary of state. He didn’t surprise in that regard. While Clinton steered confidently from paid family leave to clean energy to criminal justice reform to mutual defense treaties, Trump floundered whenever the exchange shifted from his comfort zone — trade, jobs, Mexico, China — to less familiar terrain.
At times — such as when he ended up answering a question about his tax returns with a lament about America’s “Third World” airports — it seemed as if Trump, having exhausted his store of information on the subject at hand, was simply filling space with snippets of his stump speech and other unrelated musings.
The clearest example was cybersecurity. “As far as the cyber,” Trump began, “we should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not.” He went on, at length, to speculate about who hacked the Democratic National Committee earlier this year. (“It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”) He then bragged about his adolescent son, Barron. (“I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable.”) Finally, Trump concluded with a stirring invocation of American ingenuity.
“The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough,” he said. “And maybe it’s hardly doable.”
In moments like these, Trump sounded less like a potential president than like a student bluffing his way through an oral exam.
It was a gap that Clinton was quick to point out. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” she said at one point. “And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Voters tend to tell pollsters that Clinton is less trustworthy and honest than Trump. But on Monday night it was Trump who earned more Pinocchios and Pants on Fire ratings from the fact-checkers. Among the remarks of his that did not square with reality, according to PolitiFact: that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning (false); that Clinton and her campaign started the birther lie (false); that financial disclosure forms are more revealing than tax returns (false); that China has “total control” over North Korea (mostly false); that he pushed NATO toward a sharper focus on terrorism (false); that the Islamic State started on Clinton’s watch (mostly false). The New York Times also found that Trump has, in fact, described climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, even though he claimed otherwise onstage.
Clinton wasn’t 100 percent truthful Monday. She did once call the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “the gold standard,” for instance, even though she attempted to argue at Hofstra that this was merely her “hope” for the controversial trade agreement. And the way she characterized Trump’s tax payments — or nonpayments — wasn’t entirely accurate.
But overall, Clinton’s relationship with the truth was much less elastic than her Republican rival’s.
This was one of the big questions heading into Monday’s debate: Could Trump, who has built his political brand on bluster and braggadocio, prove that he has the sort of steely, steady temperament that voters tend to require of the people they entrust with the nuclear codes?
He eventually answered the question himself. Near the end of the event, moderator Lester Holt asked Trump why his “judgment” on the Iraq War was “any different than Mrs. Clinton’s judgment.” For several minutes, a defensive Trump carped and complained — about “mainstream media nonsense”; about Holt questioning his alleged war opposition; about “nobody call[ing] Sean Hannity!” Then — perhaps sensing that he was starting to sound unpresidential — the candidate pivoted to temperament.
“I also have a much better temperament than she has,” Trump declared. “I have a much better — she spent — let me tell you — she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an advertising — you know, they get Madison Avenue into a room, they put names — oh, temperament, let’s go after — I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not have a …”
Holt tried to let Clinton respond. But Trump wasn’t done.
“Wait,” he snapped. “The AFL-CIO the other day, behind the blue screen, I don’t know who you were talking to, Secretary Clinton, but you were totally out of control. I said, there’s a person with a temperament that’s got a problem.”
“Secretary Clinton?” Holt finally cut in.
Clinton, shimmying in delight and disbelief, said, “Woo! OK.” Then she turned to Article 5 of NATO, seemingly content to let Trump’s temperament speak for itself.
On a gut level, neither candidate was particularly dominant Monday night. But both had their moments.
Trump’s came early, when he tussled with Clinton on free trade, leaving her torn between her various political loyalties — to Obama, who supports TPP; to her husband, Bill, who signed NAFTA; and to liberal Democrats, who increasingly oppose both — while positioning himself as a more passionate (and less politically compromised) champion of struggling Rust Belt workers.
“All you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving,” Trump said. “And, Hillary, I’d just ask you this. You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now?”
She tried to respond with a line about the prosperity that America enjoyed under President Clinton.
“Your husband signed NAFTA,” Trump retorted, “which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry.”
“Well, that’s your opinion,” was all Clinton could muster. “That is your opinion.”
For the rest of the debate, Clinton struggled to make a similar emotional connection with her supporters. But near the end, she got her opportunity — and she seized it.
“Earlier this month, you said [Clinton] doesn’t have, quote, ‘a presidential look,’” Holt said to Trump. “What did you mean by that?”
“She doesn’t have the look,” Trump replied. “She doesn’t have the stamina.”
With that, Clinton went off on her opponent — and attempted to rally women to her side. “You know, he tried to switch from looks to stamina,” she said. “But this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men…”
Trump tried to protest, but Clinton kept going.
“And one of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest,” she continued. “He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.”
“Where did you find this?” Trump interjected. “Where did you find this?
“Her name is Alicia Machado,” Clinton said. “And she has become a U.S. citizen, and you can bet she’s going to vote this November.”
Let’s call it a draw.
Creating a moment
Nothing that happened Monday immediately emerged as this year’s equivalent of “there you go again” — as hard as Hillary tried to imitate Reagan. Still, it’s possible that Trump may have produced a pattern of moments that will in turn trigger a new, damaging narrative or two, depending on how the coverage shakes out.
The first would be about his business dealings. A series of mini-moments — evading a question about his unreleased tax returns; boasting that he was “smart” to avoid paying taxes; owning up to charges that he has stiffed contractors — could undermine Trump’s claim to fame as a brilliant CEO.
The second storyline would be about race. Again and again, Trump stumbled on the issue. He praised stop-and-frisk, a policing tactic that was ruled unconstitutional in New York because it largely singled out black and Hispanic men. He seemed proud of the fact that he spent years spreading falsehoods about Obama’s birthplace, going so far as to claim that he “did a great job and a great service not only for the country, but even for the president.” (African-Americans “really wanted me to come to that conclusion,” Trump added.) And when Clinton reminded viewers that the Justice Department once sued Trump for “racial discrimination because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African-Americans,” the Republican would only say that he “settled that lawsuit with no admission of guilt” and that other real estate firms had been sued as well.
These things tend to add up. Whether they add up to a “moment” is for history to decide.
At the end of the debate, observers were only talking about one candidate’s “sniffling”; one candidate’s aggressive interruptions; one candidate’s split-screen grimacing. They were only comparing one candidate to Rick Lazio.
It wasn’t Clinton.
(Cover tile photo: Jonathan Earnst/Reuters)