The punch not thrown

If you’re looking for commentary on last night’s debate, I don’t have much for you. To any right-minded human being Donald Trump looked like a heavy-breathing, interrupting, gibberish-spewing moron–seriously, you try to figure out what this means–and that, of course, means that Trump’s base probably thinks he kicked ass. Trump’s problem is that, while there is a disturbing number of deranged white nationalist bigots in 2016 America, there probably aren’t enough of them to hand him the presidency on their own, and so he needs to rely on his own ability to attract decent human beings to vote for him (LOL) and on Hillary Clinton’s own unpopularity and her constant struggles to master the basics of political campaigning to drive voters away from her and toward other options/none of the above. So far the latter has been paying off for him, but I think it’s possible that his showing last night was so bad that it will halt her decline in the polls. Maybe it was bad enough to get some Stein and/or Johnson voters to decide they really can’t afford to cast a protest vote this cycle, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Clinton was good, at least by the standard I’d set for her going in, which involved me deciding to forego a debate beer in favor of vodka. I think she needled Trump enough to get him to go off kilter (it doesn’t take much) and display his temperamental flaws (that spontaneous audience laugh at the end when he said his was the more presidential temperament was brutal). She may have even drawn blood in a couple of places, for example on the issue of Trump stiffing all those small businesses and the story about fat-shaming Alicia Machado, which Trump, insanely, did all over again this morning. And Trump’s horrible answer to Lester Holt’s birther question helped her out a lot. But she missed a couple of opportunities where I think a more natural politician would have landed a haymaker, none more so than the opportunity Jeb Lund mentions here:

Last but not least, Clinton missed a huge opportunity during the exchange about Trump’s taxes. Clinton pointed out that Trump’s financial statements “for a couple of years where he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license … showed he did not pay any federal income tax.”

Trump replied, “That makes me smart.”

While America might be a nation of 300 million temporarily embarrassed millionaires who see no problem in principle with evading taxes because they will eventually be in Trump’s position themselves, there’s a lot to make of a statement like this.

Clinton was on a roll, clearly hoping to get through prepared material, and she let Trump off the hook with all the people who play by the rules. Are they stupid? Are people who obey the law morons? Is everyone who thinks they should pitch in for roads and schools a chump? And how ethical are Trump’s smarts? Is he legally paying zero taxes, or is he putting himself on the same plane of financial genius as Al Capone?

Big, shocking debate moments don’t usually make a whole lot of difference–ask Vice President Lloyd Bentsen if you don’t believe me–but, inexplicably, this is a race where every little bit helps, and Clinton definitely missed an opening. They can still use “that makes me smart” going forward, but it won’t have the same power it would’ve had if she’d caught it in the moment.


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