There have been a lot of printed words, a lot of online polls, and a lot of cable news time devoted to trying to figure out exactly who won last night’s debate. Unsurprisingly, there is nothing resembling a consensus.
Some say a prepared Hillary Clinton demolished an off-his-game Donald Trump. Others say Trump’s directness clearly won out over Clinton’s canned, borderline robotic answers. Some say that nobody won, others that everybody lost. In fact, the only thing that people seem to agree on is that debate moderator Lester Holt did a bad job, though nobody can agree on why.
What’s odd is that everyone seems content to fall into the trap of judging this debate by the same metrics that applied in 2008 or 2012. Those elections featured relative moderates from the respective ends of the political spectrum debating the finer points of domestic and foreign policy and arriving at a relative stalemate. Sure, voters leaned one way or the other based on the relative persuasiveness of the candidates’ answers or the always-squishy rubric of who looked more “presidential,” but in the end the debates all followed a similar path.
Last night’s debate on the other hand, much like this presidential race in general, is blazing a new path.
This is the year of “Feel the Bern” and trucker hats with “Make America Great Again” splayed across them. This is the year where the last three candidates standing were an avowed socialist Senator from Vermont, a billionaire businessman known for his brazen disregard for political norms and embrace of capitalism, and the matriarch of a political dynasty who has spent most of her adult life relishing under (and hiding from) the Washington spotlight. That’s about as divergent a group of candidates as you can get.
The electorate is clearly restless. They feel that the economic system is rigged against them and that the political deck is stacked against them. And in response they’ve sent a loud and clear signal that they’re tearing up the rulebook that has dealt them the same losing hand again and again. That they’re ignoring the metrics of success associated with continuing business as usual in Washington.
As a result we’re witnessing an election in which the policy conversation is in many ways secondary to the larger themes represented by the candidates: Clinton, the workmanlike incrementalist who knows the Washington levers, and Trump, the larger-than-life dealmaker who accomplishes things through sheer force of will. In that sense, the choice essentially comes down to one of insider experience (with the threat of cronyism) versus outsider innovation (with the threat of greenness).
Given just how far apart those two choices are, it’s difficult to have a meaningful sense of what way the general public is leaning. But given our collective experience of sluggish job growth, of wage stagnation, of growing insecurity, of eroding national finances, and of talk of a “new normal,” the choice seems clear, even if it’s somewhat scary: The country desperately needs new blood in the White House.
So toss out every notion of who looked more presidential, or who delivered the best pre-scripted zingers, or who trotted out the best policy plans, the metric that ultimately seems to matter is who was best able to deliver a message of change.
And on that score, Trump won by a wide margin. On nearly every small-ball idea that Clinton tossed out, Trump was able to ask a pointed, but powerful question: Why haven’t you been able to make it work yet?
When Clinton brought up clean energy: “She talks about solar panels. We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster…You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now?”
When Clinton brought up creating jobs: “But you haven’t done it in 30 years or 26 years or any number you want to…”
When Clinton brought up trade deals: “She’s been doing this for 30 years. And why hasn’t she made the agreements better?”
The question stumped Clinton each and every time because there is no good answer. She’s been in positions of power for decades, but ultimately hasn’t been able to accomplish much. Her healthcare reform bill got torn apart, her Senate term was marked by repeated failure to help New York (or anywhere else), and her stent as Secretary of State has left us weakened on the world stage. This is a lengthy resume, but it’s not an impressive one.
To the extent that Trump was able to drive that point home last night, it’s difficult to say that he lost.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore. See more HERE.