(Note: For other takes on last night’s debate, read Matt Brennan on how Hillary defied the media expectations game, and Shane Ryan on “Donald Trump, paraphrased.”)
Last night’s highly anticipated presidential debate was every bit the disaster people expected it to be. In the end Donald Trump predictably tanked, becoming incoherent while his opponent, Hillary Clinton adeptly fielded policy questions, and Democrats celebrated.
But in their celebration, America’s liberals and sane people missed something important: This was not the grand slam it should have been for arguably the most qualified presidential candidate to run since William Howard Taft. In fact, the first roughly half hour was pretty bleak, and it could have been worse (no questions were asked about the Clinton Foundation).
During that time, Trump was able to tap into the populist fervor sweeping the nation, and back Clinton into a corner. No sooner had Clinton finished talking about building the economy inclusively did the GOP candidate retort:
“Typical politician,” Trump said matter-of-factly. “All talk, no action. Sounds good, doesn’t work. Never going to happen. Our country is suffering because people like Secretary Clinton have made such bad decisions in terms of our jobs and in terms of what’s going on.”
Throughout the election, Clinton’s biggest weakness is her establishment pedigree and inability to relate to voters on a human level. She is just not the agent of change Americans are desperately looking for.
Donald Trump hammered that home, forcing the former Secretary of State to debate on his terms—talking about debt and taxes—and defending her husband’s record which many progressives find controversial.
In what was the most damaging interaction of the evening, Trump managed to get Clinton to defend NAFTA, a free trade agreement she initially supported but distanced herself from during the 2008 primary against Barack Obama, and has since assured Democratic base voters she opposes.
From the Washington Post’s annotated transcript:
TRUMP: I will bring — excuse me. I will bring back jobs. You can’t bring back jobs.
CLINTON: Well, actually, I have thought about this quite a bit.
TRUMP: Yeah, for 30 years.
CLINTON: And I have — well, not quite that long. I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and how we can make it work again…
TRUMP: Well, he approved NAFTA…
CLINTON: ... million new jobs, a balanced budget…
TRUMP: He approved NAFTA, which is the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.
CLINTON: Incomes went up for everybody. Manufacturing jobs went up also in the 1990s, if we’re actually going to look at the facts.
When I was in the Senate, I had a number of trade deals that came before me, and I held them all to the same test. Will they create jobs in America? Will they raise incomes in America? And are they good for our national security? Some of them I voted for. The biggest one, a multinational one known as CAFTA, I voted against. And because I hold the same standards as I look at all of these trade deals.
But let’s not assume that trade is the only challenge we have in the economy. I think it is a part of it, and I’ve said what I’m going to do. I’m going to have a special prosecutor. We’re going to enforce the trade deals we have, and we’re going to hold people accountable.
When I was secretary of state, we actually increased American exports globally 30 percent. We increased them to China 50 percent. So I know how to really work to get new jobs and to get exports that helped to create more new jobs.
TRUMP: But you haven’t done it in 30 years or 26 years or any number you want to…
CLINTON: Well, I’ve been a senator, Donald…
TRUMP: You haven’t done it. You haven’t done it.
CLINTON: And I have been a secretary of state…
TRUMP: Excuse me.
CLINTON: And I have done a lot…
TRUMP: Your husband signed NAFTA, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry.
CLINTON: Well, that’s your opinion. That is your opinion.
This apparent flip flop surely hurt considering the former Secretary has, in recent weeks, ramped up efforts to woo progressive voters following declining poll numbers.
But Trump was not finished. Immediately afterwards, the Republican candidate attacked Clinton on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement she once called “the gold standard,” a statement she had to disavow when facing a primary challenger to her left.
Clinton merely repeated her claim that it would be a good deal, but once she saw what was in it, she opposed it. Trump pressed her. “You called it the gold standard of trade deals,” he said.
“No,” Clinton replied, going on to accuse Trump of living in his own reality. However, Clinton’s position change has been well documented. Politifact ruled it a flip flop.
During these interactions, Republican pollster Frank Luntz showed that his focus groups had Trump dominating among undecided voters.
Of course, this trend did not continue, and even Luntz himself had to concede her victory.
But what is important here is not that Clinton won, or that Trump lost. It is that in four years Democrats will be facing another Census, and the down-ballot race will determine control of the House for the next decade. There haven’t been consecutive two-term presidents in nearly 200 years, and Hillary Clinton was almost unraveled in 30 minutes by Donald Trump.
If last night’s debate proves anything it is that there is trouble ahead for the party that picked the establishment in the face of overwhelming demand for change. They can only get by on “it’s Trump” once.