Post-debate Wisdom: 90 Minutes to Nowhere

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


Our long national debate-mare is over! But not before GOP nominee Donald Trump succumbed to his strongest opponent—himself. After a strong start, Trump abandoned what one Tweeter called the “Kellyanne Conway Trump” for the “Steve Bannon [Breitbart] Trump.” Or, actually, from the auto-animatron Donald Trump to @realDonaldTrump!

Trump not only refused to repudiate Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Many Republicans still mistrust what Ronald Reagan dubbed the “Evil Empire”). The Donald denigrated a basic tenant of American democracy—the peaceful transition of power–by refusing to commit to accepting the results of the Presidential election. Trump is playing the sore loser card before the game is over.

There was nothing that Trump said or did in this debate that would have helped him to reach out to the suburban women and Latino voters he desperately needs to expand his coalition. Trump was aiming his message directly and specifically at his staunch supporters. He was better prepared for this debate than for the others, but his performance seemed unlikely to stampede undecided voters toward him—or, at this late date, drive committed followers away from him.

Hillary Clinton was careful to avoid stepping on the toes of the liberal Democratic base, while reaching out to focus broadly on the middle class. On the first two topics introduced by moderator Chris Wallace—abortion and immigration—Clinton’s stances were measurably closer to those of the general electorate than Trump’s stances were.

BTW—a shout-out to Wallace for not beginning the debate with a Billy Bush tape—sexual assault question (that slimy topic arose later on); he focused on a President’s most important legacy, The Supreme Court. (And who would have guessed that Billy would be the Bush who made a difference in this campaign?)

A CNN/ORC “instant poll” showed that 52% of debate watchers thought Clinton won the debate and 39% gave it to Trump. And an argument could be made that the outcome would have been a tie, if not for Trump’s last hour of so. But the big winner in this year’s Presidential election could be Barack Obama, who looks like a great statesman in comparison not only to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but to all the other candidates who competed in the primaries.

Several months ago, in the midst of the Primary season, New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented that he was already starting to miss President Obama. Probably more than any President since Dwight Eisenhower, Barack Obama will be leaving office on a high note.   Although Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton achieved high approval ratings, Reagan’s last years were tainted by the Iran Contra scandal and Clinton was dogged by impeachment.

President Obama seems particularly comfortable and relaxed as he goes out swinging. Clearly, he is enjoying this campaign and is wholeheartedly stumping both for Hillary and for his legacy. The Obama sense of humor is also center stage. Although Reagan and Clinton had their moments, Obama is probably the wittiest President since John Kennedy.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll shows Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton exactly where they were in January. The long and nasty campaign—like this debate–has not dramatically moved the needle, but has served to reinforce public perceptions of both candidates, and not to their benefit. Trump has come off as a crude, loose cannon with no coherent program, while Hillary Clinton comes off as secretive and calculating. Neither candidate, on the hustings, will compete for Miss Congeniality.

One final thought, before we hurtle full-bore into the chaos of the Presidential end-game: Did anybody else notice that Clinton was garbed in white, while Trump was wearing a black suit? And what message should we take from that symbolism?

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