SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Thrilla at Hofstra: Trump Beat the Spread

Image result for presidential debateHe won last night.

I know it runs counter to conventional wisdom – that’s so rare for me! – but I award last night’s first 2016 presidential debate to Donald Trump.

This isn’t to say that I disagree with what the mainstream men and women of the pundit class said they witnessed. Like them, I watched a well-prepared Clinton outmaneuver a political amateur who showed up to class after a night of partying following a year of refusing to crack open a book. Trump rambled, repeated himself, interrupted and bullied. He conflated NATO and the EU. He even unleashed a fat joke.

All things being equal, I would agree with the corporate media consensus that Hillary won. But that’s the thing – things are far from equal.

Hillary Clinton is a pro. She should have wiped the floor with Trump. Instead, she delivered a performance on the line between a B+ and an A-. Trump gets closer to a C-. That’s much closer than it ought to have been.

As they say in sports, Trump beat the spread.

It went down the same way during the Democratic primaries. Hillary Clinton had every advantage: domination of the Democratic National Committee, support of a sitting president, massive name recognition, experience and personnel from a previous run, a huge pool of wealthy institutional donors, a marriage to a popular ex-president fondly remembered for presiding over a great economic expansion. Despite all that, she nearly lost to Bernie Sanders – an aging self-identified socialist from a tiny, powerless state, with no name recognition. How, many people asked, could Hillary’s inevitable Goliath of a campaign have come so close to losing to such a David?

The answer was obvious. As we learned in 2008 when she lost to another obscure politician — Obama, with a weird name, who had little experience — Hillary Clinton underperforms. She has no charm. She doesn’t learn from her mistakes. She relies on outdated fundraising methods, like sucking up to big corporate donors. Not only does she lie, she insults our intelligence as when she emerged from her daughter’s Manhattan apartment days after being diagnosed with pneumonia. “I’m fine,” she said. What’s the matter with “pneumonia sucks”?

During last night’s debate, I was struck by how many chances Trump had to nail Hillary. If he were a better debater, she’d be toast.

Hillary tacitly confirmed that the United States was behind the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, implying that she deserves credit for forcing the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table. Because cyberwarfare is illegal, U.S. officials have always refused to comment on whether or not we helped create Stuxnet – so it remains classified. If Trump had been smarter, he would have said: “Jesus, Hillary! There you go again, revealing America’s secrets to our enemies.”

He also allowed her to weasel out of her on-again, off-again support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership “free trade” agreement. Why didn’t he reference the verbal diarrhea of close Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe, who let slip the all-too-credible assertion that President Hillary would sign TPP shortly after coming to office?

His response to Hillary’s demand that he release his taxes came close to disastrous. If ever there was a time to interrupt, there it was. Instead, he just stood there waiting for her to finish. Clearly Trump has a lot to hide. Then he made a lame gambit: “I will release my tax returns — against my lawyer’s wishes — when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release. I will release my tax returns. And that’s against — my lawyers, they say, ‘Don’t do it.’ I will tell you this. No — in fact, watching shows, they’re reading the papers. Almost every lawyer says, you don’t release your returns until the audit’s complete. When the audit’s complete, I’ll do it. But I would go against them if she releases her e-mails.”

It was incoherent and ridiculous. But once he decided to go that direction, why not mention her secret Goldman Sachs speech transcripts? At least that way, he would have conveyed that she has two types of things to hide (emails, speeches) as opposed to his one (taxes).

Rookie errors. But hey, Trump did great for a guy who has never run for political office before – and didn’t cram for the debate. Hillary has debated at the presidential level so many times she could probably do it half of it in her sleep. If I go into the ring with heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury and manage to survive a round with all but one of my teeth, it’s fair to say that I won.

What’s baffling to me is that she wasn’t able to deliver a knockout blow.

Some of it is her inability to just be real.

Part of coming off as an authentic human being is a self-deprecating sense of humor. We saw that when Trump asked Secretary Clinton how she wanted to be addressed: “Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” It was deferential. It almost seemed sweet. (Weirdly, she didn’t adjust to the honorific, failing to tack to “Mr. Trump.”)

Hillary seems allergic to humanism. Back to the TPP, for example, she could have countered Trump’s fictional assertion she “heard what I said about [TPP], and all of a sudden you were against it” with something along the lines of: “actually, that was Bernie Sanders.”

Another awkward moment was her apology for using a private email server. This should have been a win for her. It was the first time that she expressed regret in a straightforward manner. But she clearly wanted to keep talking, to make excuses, to mitigate. It was also a missed opportunity to make an email joke.

Maybe the herd is right. Maybe it’s a simple matter of she did better, he did worse. But I keep thinking, debates are graded on a curve. She was supposed to kick his ass. Yet there he is, dead even in the polls with her.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form.)

20 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Thrilla at Hofstra: Trump Beat the Spread

  1. I watched an Intelligence Squared debate, and they have a definition of ‘winning’: the invited audience gets to vote before and after the debate, and is told that only changes count, and the side with the most net changes is declared to have won. My problem with Intelligence Squared is strategic voting. Since only changed votes matter, and since we can’t know for certain which side people really like before (and after), those who want one side to win might vote against their own side before so their final vote will count. So if one side is more honest, it could lose due to strategic voting by the other side.

    CNN and the newspapers said Clinton won, and so most polls asking ‘Who won?’ say Clinton won (70+%), but (so far) Trump and Clinton have about the same numbers in the polls as they had before the debate. Of course, it takes a few days before the debate’s impact on polls is fully felt. If Hillary gains in the polls, she won. If polls remain unchanged, it was a draw, and if Trump gains, then he won.

    Hillary’s main asset that might give her a win was that she LOOKed GREAT, unlike on 9/11 when undisclosed pneumonia caused her collapse (but then she came out an hour later looking OK and trying to act like nothing was wrong). During the debate, she put paid to the rumours that she’s at death’s door (or at least her make-up artist did: she’s not like Nixon who refused make-up in ’60).

    So no one will know who (if anyone) really won the debate until the polls move, or, if they haven’t moved by Friday, it was a draw.

    • There is a long tradition of scoring formal debates, which depends on facts and logic as witnessed by experts in the field of debate. That’s much more reliable than convincing some random collection of laypeople comprising the audience.

      I believe that presidential debates should be formally scored – fail to answer a question, refute your opponent’s points, deflect, ambiguate, etc, and you lose.

      Real time fact checking would help as well.

      … and maybe the judge should have one of those vaudevillian shepherd’s crooks to drag people offstage.

      • Ha! formal scoring would result in very high negative scores for both candidates every single time.

        It would be a cool thing to try and do one day, not very likely.

      • The problem with that is the problem with “fact checking” in general. It is very, very difficult to establish facts. In grade school, we were all introduced to “math facts.” For instance, 6×6=36. That’s called a math fact; the premise is held up as axiomatic, not open for dispute.

        Look at all the ink shed over evolution and man-made climate change. Those are two “facts” that ought to be incontrovertible. Now throw in issues like abortion. Hell, take 9/11 out for a spin. I don’t even mean the “jet fuel won’t melt steel girders” nonsense. Try to have a debate about 9/11 without admitting the “fact” that U.S. foreign policy was a major driver of the actions of the terrorists in question.

        In order to have factchecking at these debates, we’d have to call these politicians on what they’re leaving out.

        It won’t fly. I think the “debates” should be retired. Each candidate should present the five main planks of their platform and the opponent should then get to ask up to five questions on each plank.

        Then, the “Big Wheel” gets wheeled out. That consists of all the issues neither candidate put up. The wheel gets spun five times and each time, whatever it lands on is addressed in the same way.

        Whether you like it or not, the biggest problem with politics is that it aims to “please” an audience. It shouldn’t be excitement for dullards. It should be something that is a little bit of a chore, like cleaning the house or making the beds. Something you do out of a sense of obligation, not because you need a distraction between tweets.

  2. Hillary lost last night.
    If she wins the presidency she will have a Republican House and a Republican Senate. Then Ginsberg will die or retire. The Republicans will simply leave the two vacancies. The Supreme Court will be 4-3 with a Conservative leaning. And that as we have been told over and over is the one thing we cannot have happen.
    There is no way HRC can win. That she can “win” against Trump is completely irrelevant. She will lose because her presidency will be incapable of overcoming Republican obstruction. And we will all get to come along for the ride.

  3. Ted,

    Honestly I could go either way on this. I don’t actually think the issue is grading on a curve, really. I do think nothing Trump does will hurt him, since everyone knows what he is, it’s already factored in. The bigger issue is that the only thing that can save Hillary is for her to appear actually human. There’s just no there there. People say she’s untrustworthy not because they think she lies a lot, it’s because they sense no human personality behind the front. I don’t think Trump will pick up support (his freakout today makes that pretty clear) but I tend to doubt Hillary will either. She might, and if she does it’s over, I can’t see Trump recovering if Hillary goes back to a 5 point lead, and is leading in Florida or Ohio. We shall see, pretty soon.

    • Isn’t knowing who Trump is and factoring that in just another way of saying he gets graded on a curve? Anyway, I do like your assessment of why Hillary is so repulsive. She DOESN’T seem like she has an actual human personality. I am going to wager that some of that inhuman projection is attributed to her conscious effort to break glass ceilings for women. I hate all of the tokenism that she represents and the media constantly throwing it in our faces but in order to get to the position she is in, I think she has made the calculus that this ultra serious, personality-less package is what it takes. I am sure her actual personality isn’t very outgoing and friendly at any rate, but she dials back whatever human qualities she may possess in order to make this power grab. All of that scares me though. It scares me that if she is elected president, she will feel the need to show that women are just as tough and aggressive as men. Everything she does seems like it is calculated and focus grouped. Her team’s calculus on what the first woman president should do could lead to more wars and a more offensive foreign policy then even what we have now.

      • Well, graded on a curve means graded in relation to others. He’s being graded in relation to himself. Different, if related. Then again, you’re probably right that how you mean it is how the media means it, even though that is wrong. You can’t have a curve with only one person.

  4. I’m not so sure that Trump beat the spread. He is an accomplished salesman and con artist. You don’t get far in those fields without some solid skills in persuasion and negotiation.

    Ever try to argue politics with a used car salesman? Facts and logic be damned, they’ll tie you in knots with sophistry and rhetoric. He should have finessed Hillary into contradicting herself and confessing to her various crimes, instead he just came off looking like a buffoon.

    We shouldn’t choose our presidents solely on the basis of their BS artistry; the debate should be formally scored by experts as I said below.

    • The formal debate has strict rules and qualified judges who award points based on those rules. Being convincing is not measured, just compliance with the rules.

      Another method used at Oxbridge is to have two doors, one that party A won, and one that party B won, and the debater who gets the most votes for having won, wins.

      And then there’s the Intelligence Squared method, of looking at how many minds were changed. After CNN announced that Secretary Clinton won, a large majority, when asked, said Secretary Clinton won, even though she did not change whom they were going to vote for.

      All three methods are used to score debates, so all have a claim to legitimacy.

      So polls ask, ‘Who won?’ and (since the comments after the debate were, “Clinton by a landslide”) that’s what they say, even though the debate did not convince them to switch from Trump to Clinton.

      De gustibus.

      • There’s no way to guarantee lack of bias in judges. Look how biased every moderator is. Holt was doing Hillary’s attacking for her!

      • I have to agree with Jack: where and how do we find objective experts to assess the debates? And if we did, would anyone listen?

        For the Intelligence Squared method (how many net minds were changed), we have an answer: Secretary Clinton increased her lead (average of all polls) from 1.5% to 3%. Florida and Nevada went from Trump-leaning to Hillary-leaning. She went from a single, narrow path to victory to multiple, wide paths.

        Trump was a 3:2 underdog before, now he’s 3:1. And President Clinton will probably have a Democratic Senate to confirm her appointments for two years.

      • Uh, Jack, would you care to explain why Holt, a registered Republican, would rig the debate for a Democrat?

      • Fear of the Clintons? The near entire elite hatred of Trump? The media bias against Trump? You might as well ask how supposed socialist Sanders could endorse the Wall Street candidate.

        But forget all that–just look at the debate. Holt attacked Trump many times then Hillary is clearly signaling right before Holt allows her an easy zinger. That’s the debate in a nutshell.

  5. I must’ve seen a different debate. I watched Hillary’s awkward smiles. And her jabs largely fall flat. She was her old dry self. Heh. Best I can say is that she seemed healthier than I expected.

    Donald interrupted more than he should have. He could’ve hit her harder but maybe he is saving it for the next one. He seemed about as prepared as she did. And he was being condescending not deferential. I thought his explanation for not releasing his tax returns made sense. He points out that it isn’t wise to do so, then highlights his opponent’s lack of forthrightness, and then makes an offer. Thing is she really has no grounds to demand any transparency or honesty of anyone. And finally, he repeats for emphasis…

  6. Or perhaps the Hillary-conquered corporate media can’t help but stack the deck against T-rump. Whether it’s good or bad? How much does anybody believe that the alphabet networks couldn’t make Kankles seem just as vile as they do now to his ferrit-headedness, if they really chose to ~


  7. Ted, I hate Hillary too, and I was about to leave a thoughtful, engaged comment. But after I read them all, I realized you only allow comments that agree with you, like Daily Kos does.

    It’s why they wrongly and shamefully fired you and it’s why I got disgusted and abandoned the arrogant bastards.

    There ARE people with a (slightly) different opinion than yours who aren’t Clinton trolls. You’d probably agree with what I was going to say, but I’m not going to post it now because it might be suppressed. The fact that i can’t speak freely here means that, de facto, I am being disrespected and insulted.

    It turns out you’re no different than that California paper that did the exact same thing when you dared talk about the cops.

    Someday I might try to post a comment that doesn’t mirror your own opinions, so maybe you should just delete my account, like Daily Kos and Faux did when I disagreed with them.

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss… and you’re one of them.


    The more disillusioned every day Faye