We are now halfway through the election debate season, which is a cause for some celebration. Unfortunately, although the post-debate commentary has not been quite as silly as I expected it to be, there are plenty of signs that the media narrative will take a bad turn after one or both of the remaining presidential debates.
The first presidential debate went so badly for Donald Trump that it was obvious to almost everyone that he had lost. Even so, as I noted late last week, we learned after the fact that large numbers of pundits -- including many on the left -- would have declared Trump the winner after the first twenty minutes, even though nothing that he said made any sense.
In other words, if Clinton had not baited Trump into an unhinged rant about a former Miss Universe, and if Trump had not carried that bizarre story forward for several days, we would probably have had a split decision on the first debate. "Trump wins on economics, Clinton wins on social issues and foreign policy," would have apparently been the consensus of the commentariat.
The vice presidential debate made that possibility only too clear. To be declared the winner, all Mike Pence had to do was seem "steady" or "unflappable," and it simply did not matter what he said. Some commentators, such as Ezra Klein of Vox and David Leonhardt of The New York Times, did a good job of reminding people to "Judge Substance, Not Style." But they were lonely voices.
Even among those who said that Pence won the debate, moreover, there was widespread agreement that he had not only said nothing on matters of policy (other than revealing how out of the mainstream he is on abortion rights), but he had actually spent his time trying to claim that Donald Trump never said things that Trump most definitely said.
When Pence scolded Tim Kaine late in the debate, "Don't put words in my mouth," the illogic was complete. Kaine, after all, had not put words into Pence's mouth. He was pointing out that Pence was refusing to say words like, "This is why it is acceptable for a presidential candidate not to know that Russia is occupying Crimea," or "My running mate retweets white supremacist materials, but voters should not be worried, because ..."
Pence, in other words, spent the entire debate denying reality. And not just denying reality in the sense that Republicans deny reality on climate change, or evolution, or voter fraud. It was, in fact, even worse than Mitt Romney "winning" the first 2012 debate while blaming President Obama for Medicare cuts that Romney and Paul Ryan relied on in their economic forecasts.
No, this was a major party's vice presidential candidate, saying over and over that demonstrably true things were "nonsense." He was, in other words, no different from Trump on substance. And his inability to argue was clear from the way he simply kept repeating the same thing about "deplorables," saying again and again that Clinton insulted good Americans. No, she insulted bad Americans and tried to understand the good ones with whom she disagrees.
Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of the post-VP debate commentary, however, was the nearly universal acceptance -- even by people who criticized Pence on substance -- that he had won on style. What I saw was a man repeatedly rolling his eyes, shaking his head, shrugging his shoulders, saying "Nonsense!" and generally condescending to his opponent.
Sound familiar? The last time that happened in a major debate was in 2000, when Al Gore was deemed to have lost a debate to his argument-deficient opponent because Gore sighed too much. He supposedly was unlikable because he looked as though he was putting his opponent down.
Pence, without piling up any of the points on substance that Gore scored sixteen years ago, nevertheless was deemed a stylistic champion for having smirked and sneered his way through a 90-minute debate.
And that is, ultimately, an even bigger indictment of these non-debates than the substance-versus-style issue. After all, if everyone were to agree that substance never matters, then both sides could compete on style. When what counts as good style changes so randomly, however, the winner is evidently decided by the unwritten rules of the kind that determine high school popularity.
I cannot help but get the feeling that commentators had decided that the Trump-lost-badly commentary had gone on for too long, so they were willing to judge Pence on the "Trump curve" and then ignore his stylistic smarminess, because it is more interesting to have a tie game than for Democrats to have a 2-0 lead. This also reeks of overcompensation by journalists who are always trying to disprove Republicans' complaints of bias.
All of this means that the recent momentum for Clinton could turn around very quickly. Even if the VP debate does not alone change the narrative, we now know that the pundits will set an incredibly low bar for Trump on October 9 and 19. Recall that things were looking very good for Republicans after the first debate in 2012, before Obama trounced Romney twice.
Even though there have been virtually no substantive arguments from either Trump or Pence in the debates so far, however, they have now clarified the overall pitch that Trump has been making from the beginning.
Theirs is not an argument, because it is not backed up by evidence or logic. It is, instead, simply an advertising spiel, or a product pitch, and it boils down to six words:
Everything sucks. Blame Hillary. Trust Trump.Again, this was not something that began with the debates. The two debates so far merely made it obvious how the Trump puffery works. And it is worth thinking this through, two words at a time.
Everything sucks: Like any carnival barker, Trump relies on absurd exaggeration. Even so, it is one thing to say that your brand of cigarettes will give smokers that "smooth, fresh feeling," or for a pizza shop to use boxes that say, "You've tried the rest, now try the best."
Exaggeration, even in a non-sales context, can be helpful to make an impression. But Trump takes this to unheard-of extremes. The Iran nuclear treaty is "the worst ever." Except for NAFTA, which was also the worst ever. Clinton is the "most dishonest candidate ever." Trump is like the Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons," judging everyone as complete failures.
Trump's complaints about the country and the world have the same ridiculous, over-the-top quality. We "never win anymore." Jobs are fleeing to other countries. Obama's foreign policy is the weakest of all time.
And then there is Trump's most disgusting claim of all (which has had a lot of competition): African-Americans have nothing to lose, because they are living in worse conditions than third-world countries. Who cares that poverty is finally falling in the U.S., or that the recent increase in murders that Trump highlights -- as worrisome as it is -- is thankfully limited to a few cities?
In Trump's view, everything sucks, and everyone should be willing to try anything to change it.
Blame Hillary: If the debates did nothing else, they perfectly crystallized this element of the Trump sales pitch. Pence responded to one of Kaine's recitations of an outrageous Trump comment by saying that Trump is not a "polished politician" like Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.
Some commentators noted that Pence is a career politician, too. Moreover, to the extent that Pence was deemed the winner of that debate, it is supposedly because of his more polished performance. But that bit of hypocrisy misses the bigger narrative that Pence and Trump have been creating for months, which is that voters should concentrate all of their frustration with politicians on one person alone.
In the presidential debate, Trump said at one point that Clinton had been in public life for thirty years, but everything still sucks. Why should voters believe that she can do anything right? Her answer was to say that she has been First Lady, a U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State. She tried to contribute to making things better in the ways that were available to her, but of course she could not do it alone.
Trump's strategy, if we can call it that, essentially says, "Everyone who has ever held any public office is terrible, because there are still problems that have not been solved." Who cares that crime is way, way down since Bill Clinton took office? Who cares that Obama and a Democratic-led Congress steered the country away from an economic abyss right after he took office? Trump says that Politicians Fail, and Hillary Clinton is a politician.
This is an extension of the Republicans' general willingness to make things worse in order to blame Democrats for the resulting problems. Although I strongly believe that Obama was too timid in dealing with the Great Recession, the disappointing weakness of the subsequent recovery was clearly caused by Republicans' insistence on blocking job-creating fiscal policies, cutting off funds for long-term unemployment benefits, and so on.
Trump and Pence, therefore, are really saying that voters should elect them because their party succeeded in making matters worse. All politicians are guilty now, because some politicians have been cynical forever.
The standard question to ask in electing politicians has always been: "Will things get better or worse if we elect this person, compared to electing this other person?" Trump's pitch is, instead, to blame Clinton by association with people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. She should lose, Trump suggests, because they made matters worse.
Trust Trump: Finally, Trump completes his con job by holding himself out as the ultimate cure-all, the product that can do everything, the superhuman Swiss army knife with the answers. His acceptance speech at the Republican convention in July captured this perfectly: "I alone can fix it."
Having said that no politician is capable of fixing things -- because things still need fixing, after all, and "Where have the politicians been? huh?" -- Trump sets himself up for failure by claiming that he can fix everything. Of course, when things do not go well, he will deny ever having said such things, all the while blaming the media, or "the politicians," or something.
In the presidential debate, Trump interrupted Clinton (again) while she was trying to say that she was only one part of the structure of government. One senator serving for eight years, she suggested, cannot be expected to have solved every problem. Four years as Secretary of State is not enough time to end centuries of conflict in the Middle East, or to turn China into a modern constitutional democracy.
Moreover, she never even had the chance to say how ridiculous it is to expect to solve every problem. Grown-ups understand that we should aim to solve problems as well as we can, but a person is not guilty of malfeasance or incompetence simply because some problems are intractable or take decades to fix.
When Trump closes his sales pitch by telling voters to trust him, he ignores this reality. Not all problems can be solved, much less by Trump. We should try, of course, but we need to do so intelligently and carefully.
Which brings us to the weakest part of the Trump pitch. Trump comically claims to know the tax code better than anyone. He says that he can bring back the industrial economy by bullying the CEO of Ford Motor Company and by yelling at Carrier's chairman of the board. He tells us to trust him with foreign policy, because he has figured out a genius scheme to defeat the Islamic State right away, but he cannot tell us because that would give aid and comfort to the enemy.
This is why Trump pretends to be a genius, and why his business failures are so problematic for his campaign. When Pence says that Trump's failures made him stronger, he inadvertently undermines the Trump brand. Other people fail, but Trump succeeds. Who cares that he fails constantly, and that he has abused working people (and women, and nonwhite people) every step of the way, even as he was failing? Trump, we are supposed to believe, is a winner.
So there you have it. Everything sucks, even though things are getting better. Blame Hillary, even though she has done many good things, and it is Trump's party that has stood in the way of progress. Trust Trump, even though he is notably uninformed and a serial failure.
Having said all of that, I anticipate that the day after the next debate, supposedly reasonable people will be talking about how Trump did a great job by not sniffling or interrupting Clinton quite so frequently. Needless to say, I hope to be pleasantly surprised.