Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton smiles as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Monday, September 26, 2016.
Hillary Clinton had to do three things in last night’s debate, and she did roughly 2.8 of them very well. First, she had to actually make sounder, and more appealing policy points than Donald Trump did. On the whole, she succeeded—though she still doesn’t really have a good comeback to Trump’s criticism of the past several decades of trade policy (that’s why I only give her a 2.8 of three). Second, she had to get under his skin, so he’d feel compelled to defend himself, which is to say, defend the indefensible. Third, she had to know when to let him go, to rant, to be Donald Trump, and not step on it by interrupting or trying to refute the absurd. On points two and three, she was brilliant. Getting under his skin, she handed him the rope. Letting him rant, she let him hang himself. (So, I might add, did Lester Holt, who obviously went into the debate believing that he’d let the candidates be themselves, largely free from his own interruptions, before the largest audience they’d yet faced—journalistically, absolutely the right call.)
The three issue areas that were actually discussed—as opposed to those that fell victim to Trump’s incoherence, which worked to Clinton’s favor—were the economy, our relation to the world, and the intersection of race relations and police practices. On the last, Clinton was clearly, and I thought effectively, reaching out to young minority voters—a group whose turnout she clearly needs to encourage. Her discussion of the massive over-incarceration of the past decades, and the ongoing racial bias that affects, and in many places, dominates police practices, threaded a needle: Showing her understanding of the urgency behind Black Lives Matter while at the same time making police reform sound unthreatening to moderate white voters—at least, those moderate whites who don’t believe, as Trump would have it, that we’re in a 1968 moment when cities are going up in flames. Trump’s one-note law-n-order shtick, by contrast, doubtless played well with his base, but there’s no way it put any new votes in his column. Clinton’s move to mine her potential base for more votes, by contrast, probably did enable her to win some friends and influence fence-sitters.
The candidates’ exchange on America’s alliances, and Clinton’s insistence on preserving them, also worked to her advantage. Her strongest moment came when she pointed out that absent those alliances, our intelligence on terrorist threats would be diminished, and the CNN post-debate poll showed viewers overwhelmingly believed she’d be the stronger president on foreign policy. On the economy, however, Trump’s insistence that the trade deals enacted by administrations of both parties—by a power structure of which Clinton was a charter member—resonated with viewers. Clinton responded by noting that she opposed some deals while in the Senate (she cited the accord with Central American nations, CAFTA), but mainly by pointing out that the squeeze on the middle class is also the result of tax and other policies skewed to the 1 percent. She went on—and this should be her central message—to list the policies she’s promoted that benefit the 99 percent: higher minimum wages, paid parental and sick leave, affordable college. She also made clear that those policies that require federal spending would be paid for by higher taxes on the rich. After a period in which she’s separated Trump out from mainstream Republicanism, she came back to the arguments that always work for Democrats: Trump’s economic proposals are chiefly the latest iteration of Republican trickle-down economics, while hers are rooted in the empirically-grounded belief that the way to produce prosperity is to invest in that 99 percent. She needed to focus on that contrast even more, and surely will in the two remaining debates. That’s where she connects with the everyday lives of Americans—young Americans in particular—in a way that Trump never can.
While the CNN post-debate poll showed that 62 percent of viewers believed Clinton had won, while just 27 percent believed Trump had, her lead on who would do a better job handling the economy was much narrower: just 51 percent to 47 percent. Trump may be a one-trick pony, but he does that trick—talking about the offshoring of good jobs and (much more vaguely) about how he’ll bring them back—pretty well. Clinton needs to talk more about her own jobs plan, particularly about investing in infrastructure. But there’s no question that Americans believe the loss of manufacturing jobs, in particular, has hurt the economy, and by promising to bring them back, Trump strikes a chord that resonates beyond just his supporters. As anyone who’s been in a factory in recent years can attest, even bringing production back won’t create anywhere near the number of manufacturing jobs lost over the past two decades; the automation of production makes that impossible. But Trump’s promises—at once nostalgic and fantastical—are something Clinton can’t and won’t match. That’s one reason why his economic vision appeals to so many Americans, and why Clinton needs to focus even more on her commitment to creating jobs and diminishing economic inequality.
Then again, it’s not clear that manufacturing’s return is an issue that motivates younger voters, for whom the factory-centric nation of 60 years ago isn’t even a memory. Clinton’s focus on other forms of economic revival—college assistance, better work-life balance—clearly plays better, and as she gets more of a chance to bring this to younger voters’ attention, it will help her win them over (less from Trump than from Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or from the impulse to skip voting). Last night’s debate may well have put her on that path: According to a post-debate poll by Public Policy Polling, 63 percent of young voters “think she won the debate to only 24 percent for Trump. Forty-seven percent of voters in that age group said the debate tonight made them more likely to vote for her, to only 10 percent who say it made them less likely to vote for her.”
Not bad for 90 minutes’ work.
On Clinton’s objectives two and three—getting under Trump’s skin and watching calmly as he became increasingly unhinged—she demonstrated that she needs no counseling at all. Surely, Trump’s handlers must have urged him not to let her provoke him into turning his attention away from the challenges facing voters to a defense of his own conduct. But the leopard could not change his spots. Clinton put the hammer to his knee and Trump kicked—himself. It’s too early to say how many persuadable voters she won in last night’s performance, but it’s not too early to say how many he won: None.