by Neil H. Buchanan
I wrote my analysis of this week's presidential debate after shutting myself off from the media's reactions to the event, because I wanted to ignore the campaigns' attempts to spin the results and to form my own opinion without being influenced by the commentariat's insta-consensus.
As it happens, my conclusion that Trump lost the debate quite badly ended up being the nearly unanimous assessment. That is more good than bad, I suppose, because while I do not follow the crowd in these things, I was relieved to see that this was not one of those debates where the media commentary immediately went off the rails.
But I am worried about a sub-consensus that has now emerged in which non-conservative pundits are claiming that Trump was doing quite well in the early part of the debate, which focused on economics and international trade.
That analysis is not merely wrong, but it shows how easy it will be for Trump to snow the pundits in the two remaining debates. Even worse, a bias against Clinton has again emerged among the fact-checkers and other analysts. While everyone seems to agree that Clinton crushed Trump on Monday night, there are ominous signs that too many people are preparing to give Trump a free pass on October 9 and 19.
As I noted in my analysis the morning after the debate, I not only did not read or listen to any of the debate-related commentary before writing down my thoughts, but I also did not read the fact-checkers' analyses of the debate. As I wrote that piece, therefore, I proceeded on the assumption that at least the most obvious lies that had poured out of Trump's mouth would have been picked over by the time I hit the "publish" button.
As a result, I wrote almost nothing about the first third of the debate, which covered economic and trade issues. Trump was repeating so many of his oft-repeated lies that it seemed safe to assume that his early performance would be dismissed by everyone as yet another dive into his most extreme delusions.
The first several sentences out of Trump's mouth, after all, were simply nonsense. He began with this: "Our jobs are fleeing the country. They’re going to Mexico. They’re going
to many other countries." Without missing a beat, he then started lying about China: "They’re devaluing their currency, and
there’s nobody in our government to fight them. ... Because they’re using our country as
a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the
This was all so preposterous that I could not imagine anyone taking it seriously. And the fact-checkers did a good job in some ways, noting that Trump lied about the size of manufacturing plants in Mexico, that China's currency manipulation had ended long ago, and that Ford had not laid anyone off in the U.S. when it opened a new plant in Mexico.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, the pundits decided after the fact that Trump was being "aggressive" about economics and trade, and that Clinton's fact-based responses were inadequate. A New York Times article included this gem: "His aggressiveness may have been offset somewhat by demerits on substance, but ..." Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
Even more strangely, the left-of-center Slate site published a column titled: "Trump Destroyed Clinton on the Economy. Here’s What She Should Say Next Time." And Slate's ongoing "Trump Apocalypse Watch" column included this: "Friends, things were pretty bad last night at about 9:20 p.m.. Hillary Clinton ... started it badly, failing to effectively rebut Trump's well-delivered argument that she's sold out American workers in trade deals."
In one way, I understand what is happening here. The question in a presidential debate is not only who has a better grasp of facts and logic. When I wrote in my post-debate analysis, "Whether in a debate hall at Oxford or a shouting match at a local pub, good debaters beat bad debaters," I obviously did not mean that it is impossible for a demagogue to win over a crowd with nonsense. I only meant that the venue does not matter and that good debaters make better arguments than bad debaters.
And the people at places like Slate could be understood as saying, "We want Clinton to be even better than she was on Monday night, so here are the areas where she needs to tighten up her rhetoric." But that is a long way from being able to say that Trump "destroyed" her on economics, or even on trade alone.
As Paul Krugman put it: "So don’t score Trump as somehow winning on trade. Yes, he blustered more
confidently on that subject than on anything else. But he was talking
absolute garbage even there." Quite so.
What makes this more worrisome is that the fact-checkers decided that Clinton had lied when she explained her decision to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Trump reminded viewers that Clinton had once called the TPP the "gold standard" of trade deals. Clinton responded that she had done so while the deal was being negotiated, but that when it was completed (after she left the Obama Administration), it did not meet her expectations, so she decided to oppose it.
Now, I can certainly understand why people might suspect that Clinton's story is cover for her decision during the primaries to move toward Bernie Sanders on trade. I do not see why that is a bad thing, but anyone who wants to say, "That wasn't her real reason for changing her mind," can do so. They cannot say, as Trump did, that she was changing her view because of what Trump was saying, but it is fair to say that she (like any candidate for office) makes strategic decisions in light of public opinion.
The problem is that the fact-checkers said that Clinton was not even telling the truth, as opposed to putting a positive gloss on a politically motivated policy shift. (For what it might be worth, I suspect that both things are true. Clinton wanted to blunt Sanders on trade, but she also saw shortcomings in the final pact.)
The Washington Post's fact-checkers focused on Clinton's statement that she "hoped" TPP would be a good deal and concluded that Clinton "never used the word 'hoped.' Instead, she was more
declarative, using the phrase 'gold standard' when she was Secretary of
State." Similarly, the fact-checkers at The New York Times faulted Clinton because she had not made it clear in the past that her support was contingent on the content of the final deal.
What? Have we now reached the point where Clinton has to begin every sentence with, "Based on what I know now, and assuming that nothing important changes ..."?
A million analogies come to mind, but here is a simple one. You are watching a house being built. It looks good as it is going up, and you have seen the blueprints. Most of the way through the construction, you say that this is a beautiful house. You look at the house after it is completed, however, and it is not what you thought (or hoped) it would be. Bad last-minute design decisions have taken what could have been a good thing and ruined it. You declare that you do not like the house.
Are you lying now because you did not say back then, "Assuming that the house is completed as well as it has been built and designed so far, it will be a great house"? No one else is held to that standard, but apparently even non-conservatives think Clinton should be.
But what worries me the most about this aspect of the post-debate commentary is that it reminds me so much of the spin after the first 2012 presidential debate. Many of us remember that debate as the night when President Obama was deemed to have lost the debate because he seemed to exhibit what we would now call "low energy." Mitt Romney, by contrast, was "commanding" and "impressive."
My analysis of that debate, which I also wrote after sequestering myself from outside commentary, focused on Romney's inability to make an argument or respond to Obama's arguments, and I noted Romney's many obvious lies.
Obama did not win many style points that night, but he won the debate hands down on substance, mostly because he had substance while Romney was allergic to the stuff. The best that one can say for Romney is that his running mate, now-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, lied even more egregiously in that year's vice presidential debate.
Even so, the punditocracy decided immediately that Obama had lost the first debate badly. Democratic partisans were wailing and angry. As I noted in a follow-up analysis a day later, Jon Stewart captured the essence of the post-debate consensus when he declared Romney a clear victor in the debate, even though (in Stewart's words) "he lied his a** off."
And now we have Donald Trump, who cannot make a coherent argument (in a debate or anywhere else), but who apparently impressed many pundits by delivering his lies and nonsense confidently. Other than the demerits on substance, we are told, he was onto something.
Again, I know that some of these analyses are designed to ask not whether the candidates' arguments make sense but whether they are "going over well" with undecided voters. It is possible to undertake such an analysis, however, without declaring that someone won a debate when they were not even debating. Why not something like this: "Trump's falsehoods on trade and the economy were apparently convincing to some voters who are unaware of the facts"?
If I were advising Clinton, I would certainly be taking these critiques seriously, even though they are utter nonsense. She needs to be aware that even the people who are rooting for her are willing to call Trump the winner when he lies with bravado and confidence. Clinton needs to come up with confident responses that are not too wordy.
Even so, we need to be aware that Clinton's consensus win on Monday night has already been spun as a partial loss. Trump has no economic policy other than vaguely specified -- but very large -- trickle-down tax cuts for the rich. His ideas on trade are based on pure bluster. His suggestion that he will bring back the manufacturing economy of the 1950's through 1970's is utterly absurd.
Clinton cannot fact-check everything in real time. When she tried to do so on Monday, Trump kept saying, "Wrong!" and simply lied about his lies. He will continue to do that with great confidence. If the standard for assessing debate performances is, "Who spoke confidently and forcefully, no matter the content?" then Trump will continue to get a free pass. That cannot be allowed to happen.