“He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them,” said Hillary Clinton late in Monday’s debate, as she desperately retailed every cheap shot advisers had drilled into her. The “he” in question wasn’t her womanizing husband in the front row but Donald Trump.
Hillary’s resort to smears and her reliance on a painfully stale script made her look less like a presumed favorite than a desperate and unscrupulous challenger. Her attack on Trump as a racist landlord was particularly shameful, but Hillary, ever the power-mad Machiavellian, was willing to use any lie to try and win. She furiously tossed out shabby pieces of opposition research even as she played the scold and lectured Trump on “presidential” probity.
The chief impression she left was that of a relentless and straining phony, whose canned lines and exhausted pandering cements her image as the candidate of yesterday. It is hard to believe Democrats are still trying to score points off Reaganomics. Hillary seemed very proud of her pathetic line about “Trumped-up trickle down” economics, as if voters, after two terms of anemic growth under Obama, live in dread fear of returning to the prosperity of the Reagan years.
“I’m not sure Hillary gained any votes tonight,” said Bob Schieffer of CBS. Hillary, running hard to the left during most of the debate, wasn’t interested in reaching new voters but reinforcing her base, though even there she may have faltered, if Michael Moore’s underwhelmed reaction is any indication. He thought Trump won the debate. Trump certainly won the most important part of it, the beginning twenty minutes, presenting his central campaign themes with clarity while Hillary fell back on warmed-over patter and lame ripostes. If voters overlook the flaws in his performance, it will be because he spoke from his heart while Hillary spoke from a script. He wants to change a nation; she wants to win an election.
Many in the chattering class said that Hillary won “on points,” which sounded like damning with faint praise. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski gave voice to the nervousness behind such brittle praise by saying grudgingly, “I think, probably, we all think Hillary won. But my blood pressure kept going up throughout the whole thing — I could not stop watching until the very end because there was something that was telling me he’s going to do quite well out of this, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
What she can’t put her finger on is how Trump’s straightforward style contrasts favorably with the utter insincerity of Hillary Clinton. Critics dismiss him as a “reality show” star, but the packaging and calculation of Hillary’s show has no reality to it. It seemed about as real as Lester Holt’s claim to be a Republican. Perhaps the investigative unit that ferreted out Brian Williams’s false claims of wartime valor should get to work on that mystery. Holt treated Hillary gingerly while pursuing Trump on peripheral matters. The liberal lightweight in Holt came out during his insistence that stop-and-frisk policies are “unconstitutional in New York” because one liberal judge declared it so. Pointing out the context of the ruling to Holt, Trump suddenly looked like the fact checker. Somehow in his section on “cybersecurity” Holt managed to omit any questions about Hillary’s criminal violations of it.
True, Trump should have pounced on that one, and he could have knocked Hillary off her high horse by talking more about Benghazi and the corruption of the Clinton Foundation. Also, instead of spending time on meandering defenses of his tax returns and business practices, he could have asked her how many jobs she has created and why, if she is so worried about fair contracts, she demanded of universities hundreds of thousands of dollars for twenty-minute speeches.
But Trump didn’t need to deliver a perfect performance. He just needed to appear plausibly presidential, a test that he passed. If anything, his stature was elevated by Hillary’s decision to play the petty attacker. That was a tacit admission of her vulnerable position in the race. Unable to offer any positive program for the country, other than promising more of the same, Hillary has to campaign negatively. But even after hundreds of millions of dollars in negative ads, as Trump noted, the race remains tight.
The Clintons got to the White House the first time because “they couldn’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” This time around she can’t stop thinking about a faded past and the charismatic agent of change is not the Democrat but the Republican.
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