Donald Trump had one job: To hold it together for 90 minutes. But facts got in the way of the nasally impaired, blustering GOP candidate's strategy to rattle an unflappable Hillary Clinton.
Normally, when I watch the presidential debates, I have a beer (or two) in hand. Instead, for this first general election debate of the 2016 presidential cycle, I found myself reaching for a container of Tums.
To be fair, in the lead up to the national broadcast, the tension couldn’t be higher. The latest polls have been showing Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton neck and neck, and preeminent statistical prognosticator Nate Silver even claimed if the election were now, Trump would be taking over the Oval Office. Meanwhile, the political punditry set extraordinarily low expectations for the GOP candidate, whose team claimed that he wasn’t even practicing for the upcoming debate.
I thought that was an attempt to set the bar low, but maybe his campaign was actually telling the truth.
For the first few moments of the debate, a low-key, and surprisingly calm Trump stood behind the podium. His voice didn’t raise, and his hands weren’t gesturing in their usual erratic ways (though he was compulsively sniffling. Curious). Whelp! That lasted all of ten minutes before his cool demeanor crumbled away. Clinton was relentless in her probing of all of Trump’s sore spots: his climate-change denialism, his refusal to release his tax returns, his push to continue unconstitutional policies like stop-and-frisk, and his close, buddy-buddy relationship with Russia.
By the end of the evening, Trump was in full-on meltdown mode. He went from consistently interrupting Clinton to telling moderator Lester Holt that his facts were wrong, to downing glass after glass of water in an apparent attempt to stop himself from shouting. Near the end of the night Trump descended into a series of scowls and heavy sniffing, at the same time declaring himself to be the only one with the “temperament” to be president.
“I have much better judgment,” he announced. “I also have much better temperament. My strongest asset is my temperament. I have a winning temperament.”
If he does have a “winning” temperament, he forgot to bring it on stage with him. Clinton was able to easily needle him on one topic after another, landing blow after blow on the GOP nominee. He reversed course immediately when Clinton noted that he denied climate change exists, swearing he said no such thing—a fact that a simple Twitter search proved was false. He vehemently argued that stop-and-frisk, a racial-profiling measure that let New York police officers search (predominantly brown and black) citizens for weapons without any probably cause, was never ruled unconstitutional, despite the fact that it was ruled to be so in 2013.
And when it came to questions about whether Trump would release his tax returns, the Cheeto ran in circles claiming once again that the returns couldn’t be released because of an audit—and was once again told the IRS can indeed release them. So he then proposed that his financial disclosures offered far more information. Eventually his vanity got to him, when he let it slip that he was “smart” to not pay anything in federal taxes despite allegedly earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year in income. Make America great again by … fleecing its people and the programs that benefits them? Well, that is how he’s made his millions.
The Hillary Clinton who consistently was accused of being “too wonky” or too stiff or not personable enough on the campaign trail, meanwhile, was in her element as she owned the stage. When discussing infrastructure, Trump claimed that America was crumbling to pieces, that roads were falling apart, and that major airports weren’t nearly as impressive as the ones in foreign countries that he had visited. He argued that Democrats had “squandered” the country’s assets on too many progress ideas. “Or maybe it’s because you haven’t paid your federal income taxes,” she glibly retorted.
As the night progressed I eventually realized that Clinton was having fun, and I started to have fun, too. I clapped in glee at her little shimmy as Trump told her she didn’t have the temperament to be president. I cheered her when he told her she didn’t have stamina, and she quipped that he should come back “as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee.” And when she countered, “You know what else I prepared for? To be the president,” I swear I felt my heart swell with pride on her behalf.
There’s no question: Clinton won the debate, by rattling Trump into demonstrating his inability to withstand heavy pressure and questioning, and by laying out her own policy platform to make the case for herself as the next Commander in Chief. But perhaps the most revealing moment, the one that displayed the greatest gap between the two candidates, underlining why Clinton is so very much more qualified for the highest office in the land was during the discussion of nuclear weapons. Trump suggested that the United States may consider not upholding some of its previously negotiated treaties, and Clinton immediately and emphatically disagreed.
“Words matter. I want to reassure our allies in South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them,” she said. “It is essential that the world knows America’s word is good.”
America’s word is good. Maybe that, in the end, is the most important takeaway from the evening’s debate, and the clearest explanation of why Clinton and not Trump needs to be the next President of the United States of America. From his climate-change reversal to his likely tax evasion, his refusal to pay contractors after deciding that their work wasn’t up to his standards, or his multiple bankruptcies, Trump showed in example after example after example that giving his word on a promise means absolutely nothing.
There can be no negotiations, treaties, or any sort of global cooperation if the world’s most influential leader is known as a person who cannot be trusted to keep his word. It’s a truth that anyone in politics understands, and it is why Clinton was so eager to calm the fears of other countries who are rightfully concerned about Trump in the White House. Clinton is already focused on cleaning up the damage caused by a Trump campaign, even without him ever stepping a foot into office.
By the time the debate concluded I was wishing I had a drink to sip in celebration. Clinton clearly knocked Trump off his game, while at the same time appearing intelligent, witty, energetic, and yes, even presidential. The Tums container, thank goodness, went mostly unused.
Which is good, since I think I’ll desperately be needing it on Election Day.
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