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A good 40 percent of the country loved seeing him tell her off. At least as much of America was thrilled at how she handled him.
In the middle of our weary electorate, some argued which POTUS wannabe shaded the truth more or outfoxed the other. Right or and wrong, a consensus set in among the talking heads and online chattering class (supported by Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s focus group) that Hillary Clinton got the better of Donald Trump in their first debate.
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Even some high-profile types backing the boy gave round one to the girl.
No less than Rudolph Giuliani, former New York mayor and full-on Trump surrogate, said Monday was Clinton’s night.
But that’s so last night. By Tuesday morning the effort to turn the talk of the campaign in a particular direction occupied the political class and the media they want to dominate.
Giuliani, for instance, was riding the refs, suggesting Lester Holt’s moderation of the debate tilted to the Democrat and pushing for better treatment in the two scheduled debates to come. Should Trump, he wondered, even do more of these?
Here’s a trilogy of themes each side pressed.
He pulled a punch. Toward the end of the debate, Trump suggested that he could have gotten nasty and personal but chose to be nice.
Later, breaking tradition by working the post-debate spin room himself, he said that when Clinton accused Trump of sexism he could have made an issue of Bill Clinton’s infidelities and her past attacks on the women who came forward about them.
But, Trump suggested, he didn’t go there out of respect for Chelsea Clinton, a friend of one of his daughters.
Newt Gingrich later told Sean Hannity on Fox News that the punch he didn’t throw marked a highlight for Trump.
“That might have been the best single moment, and Hillary was mean, nasty, knew it was a cheap shot,” Gingrich said. “He had a perfect moment there to clobber her. He looked over at Chelsea and thought ‘I’m not going to do it.’ It showed.”
Lester Holt. The moderator came in under great pressure. Team Trump said he shouldn’t fact check in real time. (There’s a legitimate argument for this. To fact check off the top of your head and get things wrong would be a disservice to a candidate and the voters. To fact check some things implies everything else the candidates are saying is true. Plus, it’s just damn hard.)
Holt, whom conservative Heat Street called “the third debater,” drew criticism early on for not keeping the conversation focused and concise. Then he pressed Trump on the release of his tax returns, saying the IRS has said any ongoing audits don’t preclude their release. And when Trump insisted he opposed the Iraq invasion — evidence suggests otherwise — Holt called him out on it.
Additionally, two of Clinton’s biggest campaign liabilities mostly escaped probing. Her handling of email while secretary of state got only glancing mention, and the debate didn’t wander into whether the Clinton Global Initiative, and the money it received from foreign donors, posed conflicts of interest.
“Holt reminded viewers he’s liberal — from pushing the birther issue to harassing Trump about his tax returns to a wildly biased question about Clinton as ‘the first woman nominated by a party’ not having ‘the look,’ ” wrote Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center on FoxNews.com. “Clinton skated by with a 15-second response on her emails while Trump was asked repeated follow-up questions while Hillary was not. There was no ‘deplorables’ question and Holt promoted the birther meme without noting its origin in the Clinton camp.”
Just wait. This was Trump’s first try at a one-on-one debate. Clinton did it multiple times in 2008 and earlier this year. Plus she’s been marinating in public policy for decades. So, yeah, Trump was new to this. There’s two more of these to go.
Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager now working as studio talent for CNN, suggested the coming two debates will offer his guy a chance to rebound by talking about the things that didn’t come up Monday.
“The first debate in a presidential cycle isn’t the end all be all,” Lewandowski said. “Let’s see what happens.”
He imagined future debates taking a different course.
“Break the debate down to two categories,” Lewandowski was quoted as saying by Talking Points Memo. “The first 45 minutes was one category where Donald Trump was particularly strong. He was able to talk about TPP, trade, issues where he could be on the offense there. Clearly Hillary Clinton was on the defense on those issues. The second half of the debate, these are the issues you talked about: you talked about the birther movement, you talked about taxes, you talked about a housing discrimination case from 40 years ago. Right? These are issues that clearly put Trump on the defense.”
Watch the tape. The Democrats walked away thrilled, convinced their nominee had been calm, collected and showed herself to be a seriously informed prospective president. They felt Trump got flustered and, as they like to say, came off as a fifth-grader bluffing his way through an oral exam he didn’t study for.
“Her discipline and composure were uncanny,” wrote Michelle Goldberg at Slate. “She is the only thing standing between us and the civic abattoir of a Trump presidency, and for 90 minutes she showed herself up to the job.”
Tax returns. Trump continued to say he wouldn’t release his taxes — unless Clinton can produce 30,000-plus emails that have gone missing from her days at State. That left Clinton to speculate on why he’s reluctant to release them and what they might show.
That, in turn, leaves his tax returns as a continuing story in the month and a half left before Election Day.
Clinton: “We don’t know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks. Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.
Trump: “That makes me smart.”
Clinton: “So if he’s paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health. And I think probably he’s not all that enthusiastic about having the rest of our country see what the real reasons are, because it must be something really important, even terrible, that he’s trying to hide.”
“Thus far,” wrote Judd Legum at the liberal Think Progress, “Trump has been able to avoid a sustained discussion of his tax returns.
“His luck may have just run out.”
Did they say watch the tape? Clinton people, anxious at poll numbers that showed a monster lead evaporate over the past two weeks, are clinging to what they see as this week’s 90-minute highlight reel.