Sure, Hillary ‘won’ the debate, but does it matter?


To most people who know anything about debating, or about national and international issues, or about the presidency, Hillary Clinton pretty much cleaned Donald Trump’s clock last night.

She was serious, focused, informed, composed, presidential. He was thin-skinned, blustery, illogical, inarticulate, uninformed — the usual.

But does it matter? Does it make a difference? In 2016, that is the operative question.

I’ve had several conversations with folks this morning, and everyone has more or less agreed with this assessment. But I tend to speak to well-informed people.

I keep thinking about the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. Debate experts said Nixon won. So did most people who heard it over the radio. But those who saw it on TV said Kennedy won. And that was the new factor that the professionals, the experts, didn’t take into consideration.

Today, the new factor is that a significant portion of the electorate has gone stark, raving mad.

A debate like what we saw last night would have been inconceivable in 1960. Regardless of whether you think Nixon or Kennedy won, both of them did an excellent job by any informed standard. It would have been completely impossible for someone like Donald Trump to be on that stage. (Some would say it would be impossible for someone like Hillary to be there, but such people are looking at the superficiality of gender. The fact is with regard to factors that matter, she fits comfortably into the Nixon-Kennedy set of candidates.)

No one like Trump would be the Republican nominee. No one like Trump would have made any kind of showing in the primaries. Anyone as blustery and undisciplined as Trump would have been lucky to have been allowed to sit in the audience and watch.

So the difference between him and Hillary Clinton last night is far, far starker than the minimal contrast between Nixon and Kennedy. It’s not a contest between two qualified candidates. It’s between a qualified candidate and a nightmare.

But our politics are so messed up today, the electorate’s Kardashian-numbed sensibilities so accepting of the unacceptable, that the fact that she beat him like a drum last night — in the eyes of the knowledgeable, the thoughtful — may be as irrelevant as Nixon beating Kennedy on points. More so.

Trump’s support is such an illogical phenomenon that one cannot logically predict the effect of the debate.

And that’s yet another very, very disturbing thing about this election…


31 thoughts on “Sure, Hillary ‘won’ the debate, but does it matter?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, and if you want to see my thoughts on specifics from the debate, go back and look at my 43 Tweets and reTweets from real time last night.

    A couple or three samples that got a lot of likes and reTweets:

  2. Lynn Teague

    I have a very poor history of assessing how others will evaluate presidntial debates.

    I mentioned Oliver Sachs in a post yesterday. To expand on that, Sachs said that patients who after traumatic brain injury responded entirely to tone of voice and body signaling, as well as those who conversely could respond only to words, listened to a Ronald Reagan speech and both concluded that he was lying. Sachs went on to say that only “normals” were deceived, perhaps because they wished to be.

    I suspect there are a lot of gradations among people in how much they rely on different faculties to interpret what they see and hear. In any case, that is my excuse for not accurately predicting public debate reactions. I’m pretty much a data-based life form. I get intensely suspicious when someone keeps saying “believe me” without backing it up with information that can be verified (or falsified).

    1. Bill

      Quote from a Nixon media adviser in 1968:

      “Voters are basically lazy. Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand.” Trump is employing a particularly crass version of an impressionistic campaign. He doesn’t appeal to the intellect (which is why facts don’t matter), he appeals instead to emotions and general sensations, gut reactions. And his job is made easier when a sizeable portion of the population lives in the alternate reality that exists on conservative radio, Fox News and in the blogosphere.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I nodded when I read this from Lynn: “I have a very poor history of assessing how others will evaluate presidntial debates.”

      But then I thought further, and I realized that on the whole, I have a pretty GOOD track record anticipating how voters will react — until this year.

      I’ve seldom been surprised by an election result. I’ve been appalled and dismayed — but seldom surprised all that much.

      But this year? The behavior of voters has had nothing discernible to do with what is actually happening out there on the campaign trail or in the wider world. It’s been SO irrational that there’s been no way to predict it — from Trump beating out a host of far better-qualified Republicans (that is to say, non-lunatics) to Bernie Sanders actually being able to delay Hillary’s victory as long as he did.

      There are no REASONS such things should have happened. I’ve seen explanation after explanation, and none of them really hold water, except for a vague alienation out there that seems to spring from nowhere (and yes, as I say, I’ve heard over and over where it supposedly comes from, but these assertions are unpersuasive).

      I wasn’t around for the candidacies of Andrew Jackson or William Jennings Bryan. There are reasons to think similar things were happening then. But there’s never been anything remotely like this in my lifetime, which I guess means I’ve been blessed up until now…

  3. Jeff Mobley

    It looks like Brad was watching at least some of the commentary on PBS. It seems to me that Amy Walter is probably the least pointless pundit on TV when it comes to debate/convention/campaign analysis. I have absolutely no clue about the direction of her political leanings, but she seems to have an ability to understand (or at least to describe) the way non-Beltway/non-political junkie voters might respond to various statements/themes from the candidates.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I was! Or at least I was half-listening to it after the debate, while catching up on a bunch of Words with Friends games (including one with you, I believe).

      I heard Mark Shields being asked whether he thought Hillary met the likability test. His answer: “No.” Which prompted me to Tweet these:

      1. Doug Ross

        I’d love to see Hillary in an environment where she wasn’t overly prepared and scripted. She doesn’t appear to have a spontaneous bone in her body. Most of her canned lines fell flat. She tries to present herself as the champion of the middle and lower class yet she is so far removed from that world (like Trump) that it’s a complete sham. When was the last time she did ANYTHING a regular person has to do: she doesn’t drive; do we think she cooks? shops for food? pays bills? does her own taxes? filled out the paperwork to get a student loan or sit through a mortgage closing? flown in coach class?

        All she did was promise a bunch of stuff that she can’t deliver. Complete waste of time. The effort they put into detailed campaign issue statements is pure marketing. And the sheep eat it up.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          It would be impossible for there to be a venue in which she wasn’t as you say “overly prepared.”

          Wake her up in the middle of the night and give her a pop quiz, and she will be “overly prepared” compared to Trump. That’s because she KNOWS this stuff. She can’t unknow it…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          When did she “promise a bunch of stuff that she can’t deliver?” What are some examples of that? I just don’t remember a lot of “I promise to do this or that.” But then, stuff like that isn’t important to me, so it might just go by me…

          1. Doug Ross

            Her tax plan, her jobs plan, her energy plan, her student loan plan, her plan to defeat ISIS.

            She cannot do any of the first four without Congress and the last one is impossible.

            1. Doug Ross

              Every “plan” should be prefaced with the words “Assuming I can convince Congress to do this…”

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              As I say, stuff that doesn’t interest me.

              But it’s ridiculous to say it’s “impossible” to defeat ISIS. Of course it’s possible.

              To me, a plan is something to get you started, so I suppose it’s good to have at the outset. Once the battle is joined, the main thing is how you react to the plan falling apart…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                … which, ironically, can require planning. Or at least, great experience so that you can recognize what’s happening and see right away what to do.

                As Ike said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

              2. Brad Warthen Post author

                What I’m saying is somewhat different from what Ike was saying, of course.

                What I’m saying is… I want someone who, when awakened with an emergency at 3 in the morning, will know what to do.

                Speaking of Ike — while we think of him as being all about plans and organization, he showed he had what it takes in the sense that I’m talking about. When Hitler struck in the Ardennes with forces we didn’t have a clue that he had, Ike almost immediately saw what needed to be done. The quick Allied reaction, and moves to exploit the situation, greatly exceeded German expectations. They thought Ike would take longer to react…

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    It wasn’t just about Patton. It was the 101st Airborne going in without ammo or winter coats and stopping the Germans at Bastogne. It was about the Red Ball Express…

                1. Doug Ross

                  “What I’m saying is… I want someone who, when awakened with an emergency at 3 in the morning, will know what to do.”

                  Like Benghazi? Like Iran? The fallacy is that ANYONE knows what to do. There are too many variables. What’s the biggest emergency Hillary has faced in her lifetime and what did she do?

                  North Korea goes nuclear on South Korea. What should we do? Do we go nuclear on them?

                2. Doug Ross

                  Here’s an example: how will history judge George Bush in his response to 9/11, both in the moment and over time? I think he has already been judged to have failed in many ways. Why? Because he was impatient to do SOMETHING. Because he wouldn’t stand up to Cheney. Because he foolishly borrowed money to pay for a war we couldn’t win. Because he used a tragic event to push for the TSA to exist when all we needed was a lock on a cockpit door and a handgun at the pilot’s side.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    There you go again: “a war we couldn’t win.”

                    I’m not aware of there having been any war we COULDN’T win, with the possible exception of 1812. We can argue about whether we DID, but these assertions that winning was impossible simply don’t hold water. We can win to the extent that we really want to. If the United States completely threw itself into such a war, without reservation, there’s little doubt that victory would ensue. But we haven’t done that since 1945. We SORT OF did in 1991 in Kuwait, but we defined victory as something very limited and didn’t try to achieve all that much.

                    Perhaps what you’re saying is that given America’s attention deficit problem (“Have we won yet? Can we bring all the troops home now?”) we couldn’t win. But that wasn’t really in evidence in 2001, or 2003. It was much in evidence later…

        3. bud

          Doug, she presented policy proposals during a debate and you accuse her of being “scripted” That’s exactly what she’s supposed to be. Would you rather she mooned the camera? I get it that you find experience somehow a drawback. I find it comforting. Trump is just horrifying. Don’t know why people can’t see this.

      2. Kathryn Fenner

        Hillary is smarter than you are.
        Valedictorian at Wellesley and Yale law degree….and you have….ADD and introversion and
        So she also did the work.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I didn’t say she wasn’t. Or I didn’t mean to. The people I was comparing her to were not, in my not-so-humble opinion. This is based on my interactions with them during class discussions, etc. I would run rings around them in debates. Although they were more organized, more task-oriented than I was, which I reproach myself about to this day. I never really learned to apply myself in school until my last couple of years of college, which was WAY late.

          With regard to Hillary, I’m saying that in terms of likability, she’s PERCEIVED as that know-it-all that so many people didn’t like in school. It was a response to the Mark Shields thing.

          And it IS a problem for her…

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            “Hillary was that kid….who wasn’t smarter than I was….”

            I’m pretty smart by objective measures, but I’m pretty sure Hillary is smarter than I am, even at things I am smart at. And that’s a good thing.
            I am pretty sure Obama is smarter than me, and Bill Clinton. Jimmy Carter is a nuclear engineer, and I do not have those smarts, but… George H.W. Bush seems smart, though not verbally gifted. I probably have a higher IQ than W, because IQ is influenced by learning as well as innate brainpower, and he seems studiedly ignorant. Reagan–pfftt.

  4. Harry Harris

    Losing a debate is one thing. Demonstrating rudeness, unpreparedness, little depth of understanding, thin-skinned petulance, and a deep ignorance of international law and conventions compounded by poor judgement in front of a huuuge audience goes beyond losing. At least a percentage of that audience are persuadable. Truck on, Donald.

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