Maybe, and sadly, the 2016 presidential campaign has come to this: Donald Trump quelled some concerns at Monday night’s debate by looking sporadically normal — within some broad notion of looking like a president, if perhaps an overcaffeinated one.
And Hillary Clinton bolstered her candidacy and answered some questions about herself by looking healthy and sporadically likeable.
Low hurdles indeed, but I sense they were cleared. But we expect and need more, and perhaps we’ll get it in the two debates to come.
Maybe it was the format. Maybe it was the moderator. Maybe it was the candidates. Maybe it was what they thought was the best way to score points. Whatever it was, I heard too much thrust and parry and far too little policy and solutions.
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It was 90 minutes too heavy on identifying problems and too light on what to do about them.
Going in, the questions were whether we’d see grumpy Trump or the lower-key teleprompter Trump. And would we see lecturing Clinton — the one who sounds like she’d give weekend homework — or something a tad warmer?
We saw a little of each and all from both, with enough of the aggressive Trump to spark Clinton at one point to say, “I have a feeling by the end of this evening I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.”
She was not, but only because 90 minutes was not enough to talk about everything that’s ever happened. Trump (Mr. Sniffles?) continues to have a problem sharing, especially with time during a debate. In addition to being a political disrupter, he’s a debate interrupter. He also has a problem with listening, something highlighted by the full-time split screen that caught his exasperated expressions.
That’s not to say he wasn’t correct with some of his interruptions, as when Clinton surmised that one of the reasons Trump won’t release his tax returns is because there might be some years in which he paid no federal include tax.
“That makes me smart,” he said.
He’s right. If there were years when he legally paid no taxes, it’s an indictment of the system, not Trump. Do you pay federal income tax you know you don’t have to? If so, that makes you dumb.
Ditto for Trump’s business bankruptcies, which Clinton hit on.
“I take advantage of the laws of the nation,” he said.
About the most outrageous thing Trump said all night was, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win.”
In a night short on memorable zingers, that self-inflicted one could wind up among the more memorable.
Left unanswered by the fast-paced debate was whether Trump — whose insult-comic shtick highlighted the multiple-candidate primary debates — can get beyond the third sentence of any conversation on any substantial topic. He’s far more adept at doing that when criticizing opponents than when discussing policy.
And while Clinton — by using a few simple, declarative, apologetic sentences — as deftly as possible defended her indefensible handling of sensitive emails, Trump’s sometimes rambling answers to allegations about him let those topics linger longer than they could have.
Deft debaters know what their third sentence is going to be by the time they’re halfway through their first sentence. Trump doesn’t always seem to know where he’s going and sometimes regrets where he’s gone when he gets there.
Case in point: Near the end of the festivities (hostilities?), moderator Lester Holt, who I thought did a solid job of lobbing topics and getting out of the way, asked Trump about a comment earlier in the campaign about Clinton not having “the presidential look.”
“She doesn’t have the look,” said Trump, reacting as the New Yorker who shoots from the lip, a persona beloved by his supporters.
But then something in his head reminded him he previously had talked himself into trouble by talking about women’s looks. So he quickly shifted into politician mode and tried to take it elsewhere. “She doesn’t have the stamina,” he said.
Most Americans indeed have some notion of a presidential look. And many still are wondering if Trump has it.
There’s plenty of room to disagree with Clinton’s policies and doubt her candor, but there’s no doubt her debate performance exuded the kind of solid, even-keeled (even when provoking) demeanor Americans traditionally expect in their presidents.
The first debate left it hard to imagine the type of undecided voter who would have been swayed into one camp or the other after the 90-minute event. It is, of course, hard to imagine what kind of voter, save for those who’ve not been paying attention, can be undecided.
It is, however, possible to understand why there are voters who are undecided on whether they can vote for either of the candidates we’ve selected.
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.