Hillary’s past, not Trump, undercuts her presidential debate performance. Having worked so hard to contrast herself with her opponent, her biggest problem remains being what so many Americans perceive her to be: Someone Who Cannot Be Trusted.
Despite Trump being the “challenger” to Clinton’s “incumbent,” it was Clinton who really needed a good first debate. Having seen her post-Convention bounce go bust, her campaign’s momentum was gone and Trump’s was surging. No longer the runaway favorite, Hillary was running to keep pace.
Entering the first debate she was effectively tied with Trump. Real Clear Politics’ 9/26 average of national polling had Clinton holding a 42.9% to 41.2% lead in a four-way race. Hillary had to stop the drop, and this was seemingly her last chance to do so. So she pulled her version of a college all-nighter and crammed.
Hillary’s performance was scripted and meticulous down to facial expressions and seemingly ad lib remarks. Her preparation showed and she took pride in it, punctuating it with her obviously rehearsed line: “I think Trump just criticized me for preparing for this debate. 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.”
Her performance contrasted completely with Trump’s extemporaneous approach. It was a contrast she desperately needed because her campaign is premised on supreme competency: I am qualified and you are not. There is nothing new in Clinton’s strategy, any more than anything is left to chance. All her campaigns — both Senate and presidential — have been constructed around this unsubtle sense of superiority.
Despite the preparation and execution, Clinton had a problem in her first debate and it is unlikely to disappear: Her past. Because of that past, a large majority of Americans do not trust her. On virtually anything.
From her days in Arkansas, to Bill’s presidential run, through her White House years, during her Senate tenure, and in two presidential campaigns — with being Secretary of State sandwiched in between — when Hillary has encountered a serious situation that involved a painful truth, she has always sacrificed the latter to mitigate the former.
The full truth is a last resort for Hillary, never the first, and may never be discovered at all unless — as the FBI did with her emails — painstaking effort is taken to find it.
As a result, Hillary’s first debate performance evoked her oldest and greatest vulnerability: Can we really believe her?
Yes, the first debate was a demonstration of her strong preparation skills. However, those have never been in doubt. We have seen them used repeatedly in equally careful and disciplined attempts to avoid scrutiny.
For anyone else, such a performance would not recall such doubts. What makes it questionable with Clinton is that it comes on top of the cumulative damage from her past episodes. In her history she has survived each episode — winning each battle on debating points, but losing the war over her credibility. Evidence shows, that loss has been enormous.
In a CNN/ORC poll conducted last month (of 886 registered voters, with a +/-3.5% MOE), only 35% of respondents believed her to be more honest and trustworthy than Trump.
In the past when it mattered most and the public has hungered for truth, Hillary’s explanations have been the equivalent of rice cakes. They address her immediate need to get beyond the moment, but nothing more.
Hillary’s past has left a lasting impression on most Americans, but it is also likely to leave a lingering question during these debates: If so then, why not here — when the stakes are so much higher and her need even greater?
The talk about the candidates’ debate performances is particularly apropos when it comes to Clinton. A consciousness of acting arises from everything she does. Every appearance seems just a role, a stepping stone aimed at the part she now feels herself so close to finally securing.
Clinton is like a famous actress. We have seen her countless times in every conceivable production. She is the epitome of a star. Her star power has allowed her to get every role, feeding on itself and propelling her ever upward.
But at some point, such star power becomes its own curse. Eventually we no longer see the character she is playing, we only see her. She superimposes herself on the role. And we become conscious of her acting.
In the first debate, it was impossible to not see Hillary acting. Instead of playing the part of president, which she has so longed to have for so long, we saw only Hillary. For her devoted fans — like any star’s — that can be enough. But for the rest of America it has not been for some time.