The first presidential debate featured a man who didn’t know what he was talking about repeatedly shouting over a woman who was extraordinarily prepared.
The debate was a collision between Donald Trump’s politics of dominance and Hillary Clinton’s politics of preparation.
Clinton’s politics of preparation won.
Trump did his best to be fair. He interrupted Clinton 25 times in the debate’s first 26 minutes. He talked over both her and moderator Lester Holt with ease. But the show of dominance quickly ran into a problem: Trump would shout over his interlocutors only to prove he had nothing to say.
Trump’s riffs were dotted by baldfaced lies of the kind the press will easily check, but, more consequentially, he spoke in a barely coherent stream of consciousness. Consider his answer when Holt asked him to defend his proposal to cut taxes on the rich. It’s worth quoting in full:
They are going to expand their companies and do a tremendous job. I'm getting rid of the great thing for the wealthy, it's a great thing for the middle class and for companies to expand and when these people are going to put billions and billions of dollars into companies and when they are going to bring $2.5 trillion back from overseas where they can't bring the money back because politicians like Secretary Clinton won't allow them to bring the money back because the taxes are so onerous and the bureaucratic red tape, it's so bad.
So what they are doing is leaving our country and, believe it or not, they are leaving because taxes are too high and because some of them have lots of money outside of our country and instead of bringing it back and putting the money to work because they can't work out a deal and everybody agrees it should be brought back, instead of that, they are leaving our country to get their money because they can't bring their money back into our country because of bureaucratic red tape, because they can't get together. Because we have a president that can't sit them around a table and get them to approve something, and here's the thing, Republicans and Democrats agree that this should be done. $2.5 trillion.
I happen to think it's double that. It's probably $5 trillion that we can't bring into our country, Lester, and with a little leadership, you'd get it in here very quickly and it could be put to use on the inner cities and lots of other things, and it would be beautiful. But we have no leadership. And honestly, that starts with Secretary Clinton.
There is virtually nothing in this answer that makes any sense.
First, it doesn’t address the original question. Trump has proposed a massive cut in income taxes for the richest Americans. His answer, as best I can parse it, is related to overseas corporate earnings. He seems to be blaming Hillary Clinton for tax rates on overseas corporate income, which is ... a strange thing to blame Clinton for.
But it’s hard to assess what he’s saying, exactly, because his answer is a half-informed ramble from someone who apparently didn’t listen to the original question.
And this just kept happening. Take Trump’s answer on cybersecurity:
As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said, we should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we're not. I don't know if we know it was Russia who broke into the DNC.
She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia. Maybe it was. It could also be China, it could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. You don't know who broke into DNC, but what did we learn? We learn that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people. By Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. Now, whether that was Russia, whether that was China, whether it was another country, we don't know, because the truth is, under President Obama we've lost control of things that we used to have control over. We came in with an internet, we came up with the internet.
And I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much, when you look at what ISIS is doing with the internet, they're beating us at our own game. ISIS. So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is a, it is a huge problem.
I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable. But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing, but that's true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.
Compare that with what Clinton said on the same subject:
I think cybersecurity, cyber warfare will be one of the greatest challenges facing the next president, because clearly we're facing, at this point, two different kinds adversaries. There are the independent hacking groups that do it mostly for commercial reasons to try to steal information that they then can use to make money. But increasingly, we are seeing cyberattacks coming from states.
The most recent and troubling of these has been Russia. There's no doubt now that Russia has used cyberattacks against all kinds of organizations in our country, and I am deeply concerned about this. I know Donald been very praiseworthy of Vladimir Putin.
But Putin is playing a very tough, long game here. And one of the things he's done is to let loose cyberattackers to hack into government files, to personal files, the Democratic National Committee. And we recently learned that this is one of their preferred methods of trying to wreak havoc and collect information. We need to make it very clear, whether it's Russia, China, Iran, or anybody else, the United States has much greater capacity.
And we are not going to sit idly by and permit state actors to go after our information, our private sector information or our public sector information, and we're going to have to make it clear that we don't want to use the kinds of tools that we have. We don't want to engage in a different kind of warfare. But we will defend the citizens of this country, and the Russians need to understand that.
There’s just an astonishing gap in the coherence of these two answers. Neither, in my view, stands as a particularly great answer in the history of presidential debates. But Clinton’s is a basically logical, informed response to an obvious question; Trump’s answer is simply word salad.
Trump’s worst moment on the night came after Holt asked about Trump’s propagation of the conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya. As you read Trump’s answer, note that he says, in his answer, that he expected this question. This is what you get when Trump prepares.
HOLT: Just want to get the answer here. The birth certificate was produced in 2011. You've continued to tell the story and question the president's legitimacy in 2012, '13, '14, '15 as recently as January. So the question is, what changed your mind?
TRUMP: Well, nobody was pressing it, nobody was caring much about it. I figured you'd ask the question tonight, of course. But nobody was caring much about it. But I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate. And I think I did a good job.
Secretary Clinton also fought it. I mean, you know — now, everybody in mainstream is going to say, oh, that's not true. Look, it's true. Sidney Blumenthal sent a reporter — you just have to take a look at CNN, the last week, the interview with your former campaign manager. And she was involved. But just like she can't bring back jobs, she can't produce.
HOLT: I'm sorry. I'm just going to follow up — and I will let you respond to that, because there's a lot there. But we're talking about racial healing in this segment. What do you say to Americans, people of color who...
TRUMP: Well, it was very — I say nothing. I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing.
But let me just tell you. When you talk about healing, I think that I've developed very, very good relationships over the last little while with the African-American community. I think you can see that.
And I feel that they really wanted me to come to that conclusion. And I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate.
Cut back to Clinton:
HOLT: Secretary Clinton?
CLINTON: Well, just listen to what you heard. And clearly, as Donald just admitted, he knew he was going to stand on this debate stage and Lester Holt was going to be asking us questions, so he tried to put the whole racist birther lie to bed.
But it can't be dismissed that easily. He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen. There was absolutely no evidence for it, but he persisted, he persisted year after year, because some of his supporters, people that he was trying to bring into his fold, apparently believed it or wanted to believe it.
But, remember, Donald started his career back in 1973 being sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African Americans, and he made sure that the people who worked for him understood that was the policy. He actually was sued twice by the Justice Department.
So he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.
Here’s the thing about the coherence gap: It matters, because it speaks to a deeper difference between Trump and Clinton. My colleague Matt Yglesias wrote a piece on the difference between Trump and Clinton’s debate preparations (she was preparing, he wasn’t) that reads as nearly prophetic now:
Trump’s aides are probably underplaying his level of preparation to lower expectations, but on some level we all know in our hearts that it’s true — Trump is not sitting around studying briefing books and making sure he has accurate and detailed answers on everything that might conceivably come up. We’ve seen him in debates and high-stakes interviews before, and he almost certainly is going to more or less wing it and figure that it doesn’t really matter if that means he says things that are false or offensive.
Clinton is the one doing prep work. She’s prepping because the debate is important, and preparing for important moments is what sensible people do. And something that’s tended to get lost amid the frog memes and whatnot of 2016 is that working with a competent team to read briefing books and release white papers is a crucially important part of being president.
It’s a big, difficult job in which mistakes can have catastrophic consequences for the lives of millions of people, and where you don’t get to declare bankruptcy and start over again if you mess up. You don’t have to walk into the Oval Office knowledgeable about every issue under the sun on day one to be successful — nobody’s ever met that standard, and nobody ever will — but you do need a credible team, and you need to be able to get up to speed.
This difference will show up at the debate, allowing Clinton to give factually defensible and politically tenable answers to a range of questions on weighty matters. That’s hard to do, and Trump won’t be able to pull it off on the fly, which is why he has recently been working the refs to explain that debate moderators should let him get away with lying.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Toward the end of the debate, Trump questioned Clinton’s stamina. "I don't believe she does have the stamina," he said. "To be president of this country, you need tremendous stamina."
But the irony was it was Clinton’s stamina that won this debate, and behind that stamina was her preparation. Trump grew less and less coherent as the night wore on, and his early spree of interruptions flagged as he was quickly forced onto topics where he hadn’t done the work to feel comfortable. Clinton, by contrast, grew stronger as the debate wore on, because she had prepared for everything the moderators threw at her.
There were many differences between the candidates on display in this contest, but the most consequential one was that Clinton displayed the basic personal qualities necessary to be president. Trump didn’t. She had done the work to know what she was talking about and to survive a high-stakes encounter with an unpredictable opponent. He hadn’t done the work, and it showed.