A presidential campaign is not a résumé competition, but there’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton has some of the most impressive credentials for high office of any candidate in generations — senator, secretary of state, public advocate, and lawyer.
Not everyone likes her, but everyone with an ounce of sense can admit that she knows a lot about an awful lot of things. And over the course of the three presidential debates, culminating in the final matchup Wednesday night, it showed.
Clinton said she supports Roe v. Wade but also noted that “many states are putting very stringent regulations on women that block them from exercising that choice.” She referred to the difficulty of splitting up families that contain both US citizens and undocumented immigrants. She talked about the US intelligence community’s assessment of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. She talked about her job plan and her tax plan and about independent assessments of their impact. She offered a detailed discussion of the tactical situation surrounding Mosul.
It wasn’t earth-shattering stuff, exactly, and she didn’t have amazing zingers. But she knows what she’s talking about, she’s studied Trump’s policy plans and her own, and she’s prepared to discuss the whole range of issues under consideration. She’s a well-qualified candidate who showed up well-prepared for an important job interview.
Trump, by contrast, lacks any kind of conventional qualification for office. And rather than make up for it by showing that he has a surprising grasp of policy and public affairs given his lack of relevant background, he yet again delivered a clueless, rambling performance that was long on bluster and short on real information. Over the course of the series of presidential debates, he’s shown that he’s tall, he’s pretty good on television, and he carries himself with the distinctive confidence of a mediocre white man.
Beyond that, he’s got nothing.
Trump is weirdly ill-informed on his signature issues
Chris Wallace did the debate-watching audience a great favor by asking Trump an enormous softball question to kick off the debate’s second segment, turning to the GOP nominee and asking him to explain his position on immigration.
Trump’s answer is worth quoting in full. Keep in mind that this is his signature issue — the topic on which he has centered his campaign from its first day more than a year ago. Pay attention and you’ll note that it has no content whatsoever:
First of all, she wants to give amnesty, which is a disaster and very unfair to all the people who are waiting in line for many years. We need strong borders. In the audience tonight we have four mothers of — I mean, these are unbelievable people that I've gotten to know over a period of years whose children have been killed, brutally killed by people who came into the country illegally. You have mothers, fathers, relatives all over the county. They're coming in illegally.
Drugs are pouring in through the border. We have no country if we have no border. Hillary wants to give amnesty, she wants to have open borders.
As you know, the border patrol agency, 16,500-plus ICE last week endorsed me. First time they've ever endorsed a candidate. It means their job is tougher, but they know what's going on. They know it better than anybody. They want strong borders. They feel we have to have strong borders. I was up in New Hampshire, the biggest complaint they have with all the problems going on in the world, many of the problems caused by Hillary Clinton and by Barack Obama, all of the problems, their single biggest problem is heroin that pours across our southern borders, just pouring and destroying their youth. It's poisoning the blood of their youth and plenty of other people.
We have to have strong borders. We have to keep the drugs out of our country. Right now we're getting the drugs, they're getting the cash. We need strong borders. We absolute -- we cannot give amnesty.
Now I want to build a wall. We need the wall. The Border Patrol, ICE, they all want the wall. We stop the drugs, shore up the border.
One of my first acts will be to get all of the drug lords, we have some bad, bad people in this country that have to go out. We'll get them out, secure the border, and once the border is secured, at a later date we'll make a determination as to the rest. But we have some bad hombres here and we're going to get them out.
Trump’s campaign, seemingly working in partnership with Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and the unions representing ICE and Border Patrol officers, has in fact written up a fairly detailed immigration plan. Vox’s Dara Lind has read the plan, understands the plan, and can tell you what the plan says. Donald Trump, by contrast, appears to have no idea. He’s repeating empty slogans, absurdly asserting that a massive construction project on the Mexican border will cure opiate addiction in New England, and saying offensive things about Latinos.
Trump, to be clear, wants to be president of the United States. He’s not qualified in a conventional sense. He needs to convince us with his surprising command of the issues. Immigration is his signature issue. And he can’t make any sense discussing it.
Trump keeps tossing off random nonsense
At one point in the debate, after Hillary Clinton offered an explanation of the benefits of the college tuition plan she’s put forward, Trump cut in to remark, “We’re going to do a lot of things for college tuition.” Which things? He didn’t explain. His website offers no plans on college tuition, and it’s not something I can recall him ever having talked about.
On the economy, he said “we’ve lost our jobs,” when in fact total employment is at an all-time high. He said “we don’t make things anymore,” when in fact manufacturing output is at an all-time high. He said NAFTA “didn’t kick in” until Bill Clinton left office, which isn’t true. Nobody knows what he said about Aleppo.
When Wallace asked him why even conservative economists say his economic growth projections are unrealistic, Trump replied that we recently had “a terrible jobs report” — a total non sequitur that also (surprise!) happens to be untrue. He expressed bafflement that the US government hasn’t been forcing NATO members to “pay up,” as if it were a protection racket, and he reversed months of anti-trade rhetoric with a hazy, tossed-off promise that after he renegotiates existing trade agreements “we'll have more free trade than we have right now.”
Given trade’s centrality to Trump’s view of economic policy, you might think he would have some clear ideas here. He’s a businessman, so maybe trade is the time when he’s going to impress us.
Here, in his own words, is his plan: “We will be doing very much better with Mexico on trade deals, believe me, than the NAFTA deal by her husband, one of the worst deals of any kind signed by anybody.”
What does that mean? Your guess is as good as mine.
Don’t lower the bar for Trump
A presidential debate, by its nature, has a leveling effect. You have two candidates, side by side, up on a stage. They both have podiums; they both get roughly equal amounts of time to talk. They both offer charges and counter-charges, and the moderator probes both of their weakness.
But make no mistake: Trump is no Hillary Clinton. He’s no Gary Johnson, either, for that matter. He’s no Mike Pence or Tim Kaine or Barack Obama. He wants a government job, but he has no background in government and no circle of associates with public sector experience he can draw on as his key subordinates.
If Vox were looking to hire an experienced digital editor and a candidate showed up with no journalism experience whatsoever, we’d be skeptical.
We might be willing to take a shot on a sufficiently interesting outside candidate, but we’d have our eyebrows raised. We’d want to see she could really impress us with a level of knowledge and understanding of the work that exceeds what you could find on her résumé.
Trump is the opposite of that. Over the course of a campaign that’s lasted for more than a year, he appears to have learned nothing. He often seems unfamiliar with the content of his own policy proposals. He displays ignorance of the basic norms and principles of constitutional government — up to and including refusing to admit the legitimacy of the election itself.
In debate after debate, he shows himself to be a decent television improviser — not coincidentally, a field in which he has actual experience — but offers no evidence that he has the skills or knowledge required to be an effective president of the United States. We’ve all been in meetings and social situations in which a loud, blustery man gets his way over a quieter woman who actually knows what she’s talking about.
And to the extent that there’s any method at all to the Trump campaign at this point, that’s the plan. Just kind of show up and talk. Be loud and forceful and hope for the best. At this point, he seems overwhelmingly likely to lose the election, so we won’t get to see the consequences of trying to actually run the country the way Trump runs his debate strategy.