In the history of American debate there have been sentences so sharp, insights so burning, they had the power to immediately write themselves into the history books. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln thrashed his U.S. Senate race opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, saying that his policy on slavery in the territories was “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” More than 125 years later, when vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle claimed he had “Just as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” Lloyd Bentsen made him look like an abject fool with a simple retort: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Last night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at (for some reason) Hofstra University produced no such zingers. In fact, it was more of an exercise in just how surreal this election season has been than an actual argument about ideals and plans for the future.
Secretary Clinton had clearly been prepared for every possible scenario and was ready to provide facts and foundations.
Whenever Trump lobbed one up in the air for her, however, she began to look like a politician trying a bit too hard—not the worst thing to look like at a debate, but still. Her planned mic-drop moment, in which she dubbed the Donald’s economic plan “Trumped-up trickle-down economics,” landed flat both times she tried to force it into her monologue. It’s not untrue, just not particularly clever and definitely not worth a second try after the crickets that greeted the first go-round.
On the other hand, the former reality TV host and failed casino/steak magnate she’s running against showed up to the debate like an eighth grader bullshitting a history presentation after playing Call of Duty all night before it was due. The level of arrogance required to believe you can ad-lib a debate against someone who has been in the political world for three decades is impressive even for Trump, but as he proved multiple times last night, the candidate for the white, angry masses doesn’t mind putting on his blinders and charging ahead.
When he’s on stage by himself, this incoherent improv is like catnip to his mob of supporters, but when he has to deal with a moderator—and a politically savvy opponent—the whole act devolves into the stubborn foot-stomping of a child. After Secretary Clinton brought up verifiable facts, such as his expressed belief that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, his response was to butt in with flimsy denials like “Nope, not true” or “I never said that.” He eventually lost his cool altogether and bafflingly yelled during Clinton’s time segment that she had been “Fighting ISIS her entire adult life” and compelled the Secretary to “Ask Sean Hannity” over and over, when backed into a corner.
Tellingly, since about half the electorate seems to be living in a bubble of its own making this year, the only outlet to give Trump an advantage after the debate was Fox News. If Trump is left to his own devices much longer, it’s difficult to see how he won’t continue to dig himself a political grave.