Tonight we saw the NBC pre-debate. The non-debate debate. Officially a "candidate forum," both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appeared on the same stage -- but not at the same time. The stage was an impressive one, or at least the exterior shots were, since it was held on an aircraft carrier in New York City. This was to highlight the subject of the event: foreign policy and the military.
For some unfathomable reason, Matt Lauer moderated the event. Lauer is not exactly the first person on the NBC bench I would pick to host the kickoff political event of the campaign season's homestretch, to put it mildly. There are plenty of others with much wider and deeper experience, on both the military and on politics in general. I wasn't expecting much from Lauer, but in the end he did a better job than other moderators I've seen this election cycle, so perhaps I'm being too unfair to him. He was competent, if not exactly noteworthy.
Lauer was constrained by the condensed nature of the event. He only had a single hour to work with (with a commercial break halfway through), so he compensated by trying to rush things along -- too much, at times. Lauer's one of those guys who sometimes confuse "appearing to be a tough journalist" with "just rudely interrupting a candidate's answer," to put this another way.
Lauer also didn't exactly wow me with his chosen followups, although a few of them were well-delivered. But even his "I'm going to talk over your answer" followups usually sounded pre-scripted, like he was going to interrupt no matter what answer he got, whether his followup was actually relevant or not.
I will give NBC kudos for the audience questions, however. There were a lot of them -- much more than at a normal debate, even. And they seemed well-balanced: both candidates got questions from supporters, non-supporters, and people who genuinely hadn't made up their minds. It was a good mix, overall, and most of these questions were a lot better than anything Lauer asked. So the producers who screened and scheduled the audience questions deserve a pat on the back, at the very least. One other technical point -- likely because the audience was mostly (if not all) ex-military, they followed instructions and did not applause at all while the candidates were on stage (except at the very end). This gave it a much different feel than some of the debates, which now sound more like pep rallies than actual debates.
Matt Lauer started off each candidate's segment by attempting to lay down a rule of "don't beat up your opponent-- we're here tonight to hear what you would do." He made the point more forcefully to Clinton, whereas it came across as a mere suggestion to Trump. Perhaps because of this, Clinton (by my count) took the opportunity to bash Trump four times during her half-hour, while Trump hit Hillary seven times (which is not even counting the times he hit Obama, but not Hillary).
Both candidates, though, really were chomping at the bit to engage in an actual debate with each other. The first Clinton/Trump debate will doubtlessly draw the biggest television audience in all of American political history, because it may be akin to two armor-clad medieval knights hacking away at each other with broadswords. You could tell that if Lauer hadn't made the suggestion, both Clinton and Trump would have spent even more time going after each other than they did tonight.
But that's nothing but speculation about future events. Tonight, Hillary Clinton apparently lost the coin toss, and Donald Trump chose to go last, so Clinton started the evening out. She worked the Bin Laden raid decision into her very first answer (no real surprise there), and responded that the most important word to describe the qualities a Commander-in-Chief needs is "steadiness."
Lauer pivoted right away to the emails, and Clinton took another crack at apologizing for it. She started with: "It was a mistake," then moved on to: "It was something that should not have been done," both of which are about as passive as possible. This is a common failing among politicians, even though a simple "I made a mistake" would have been a lot more powerful. Then again, at least Clinton has the ability to admit error -- something so far entirely lacking in Trump.
Matt Lauer was pretty annoying during the early parts of Clinton's time, jumping all over her answers and not giving her time to get even a short answer out. He was much less antsy with Trump, although he did occasionally cut Trump off as well.
The first question from the crowd was also about emails, and Clinton did a pretty good job of explaining how truly classified documents sent electronically are normally on a completely different system and are clearly marked in their headers "classified" or "secret" -- which her emails weren't.
Clinton then got an Iraq War vote question, which she has had more time (and appears to be more comfortable) apologizing for. This time it was: "My vote was my mistake" -- not passive at all, taking responsibility much more actively. She made a strong case that people should judge her on the totality of her record, and not just that one vote. This is where she got her first dig in at Trump, pointing out he was actually for the war before, during, and after it began (this is both historical fact and also something that Trump refuses to admit, so it's a good avenue of attack for her).
Clinton really hit her stride about five or ten minutes in, and did an excellent job of "looking and sounding presidential." If she's this good at answering tough questions, perhaps she shouldn't be so scared of holding press conferences? Just a thought. She also eventually got tired of Matt Lauer stomping all over her answers and cut him off with: "Let me finish, because this is important." Lauer noticeably calmed down after she did so, which I (for one) was thankful for.
On the Iran agreement, Clinton got off her best line of the night, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, with: "Distrust, but verify." On the subject of reforming the V.A., Clinton tried an attack line on Trump that fell kind of flat, charging that he wanted to "privatize the system." Trump later pushed back on this, during his segment (I should mention that my wife thought that -- to be fair -- Trump should have had to sit in a soundproof booth while Clinton was speaking, but then she's a big Hillary supporter).
Clinton was hit from her left on how hawkish she was (and is), which was kind of surprising from such a military crowd. When asked whether (essentially) she could promise that there would be no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during her term, she wisely didn't try to overpromise and instead hit the point of not letting people on the terrorist watch list have access to guns.
Trump was prompted by Matt Lauer at the start to just "keep to a minimum" attacks on Clinton, which was a lot softer than the rule Lauer tried to lay down for Clinton. When asked what in his life had possibly prepared him to be Commander-in-Chief, Trump answered with his stock lines about how he was a successful businessman, which apparently prepares you to do anything. He touted his "great judgment" and insisted that he was "totally against the war in Iraq," although the article he himself cited to prove this was "from 2004" -- years after the war actually began. If he tries this in a debate, I would expect Clinton to point out this fact, and point out what he was actually saying when the war began.
Lauer pressed Trump hard on his temperament problems, and noted that while Trump had issued a very weak blanket statement about "having regrets" about some of his statements during the primary season, America may not be comfortable with the consequences of such rash statements coming from our president. Trump didn't really have a good answer for that, other than: "I beat 16 people in the Republican primaries," and: "I behaved myself in Mexico!"
The biggest headline-generating thing Trump said tonight was probably his insistence that he still does "know more about ISIS than the generals." Once again, Trump is absolutely incapable of ever admitting error in any way, shape, or form -- and he wasn't going to start now. He seemed unclear on the concept of how the military works in relation to the civil government of the United States, almost threatening to cashier all the generals in the Pentagon his first day in office ("We're going to have other generals"), which must have been at least somewhat alarming to the audience he was speaking to. Generals aren't like political appointees (such as cabinet members) -- new presidents don't get to clean house over at the Pentagon in the same fashion, but Trump obviously doesn't seem to understand this.
Trump was asked by a member of the audience about his "secret plan" to defeat ISIS, and he absolutely flailed around trying to come up with an answer, especially when Lauer pointed out he had said just yesterday that his secret plan is to ask the generals to come up with their own plan within 30 days of his taking office. He bizarrely doubled down on his idea that America should have just "taken the sections of Iraq with the oil" or, more simply, "take the oil -- to the victor belong the spoils." This shows such a fundamental misunderstanding of the international rules of modern warfare that, again, it must have worried at least a few of the military professionals in the audience.
Trump's best moment of the night came in response to a question about undocumented young people who wanted to serve in the U.S. military. Trump said it was a "special circumstance" and backed off his insistence that all undocumented people will have to be deported. This will be news, because it is the first time Trump has clearly stated that at least one group of undocumented immigrants might be allowed to stay in America.
Trump then returned to floundering around in his answers, on his relationship with Vladimir Putin and what he'd do on the subject of vets' suicide and the V.A. problems ("I love vets -- look at my polls!"). This is where he pushed back on Clinton's assertion that he was going to privatize the V.A., swearing he'd never do that.
Trump's worst moment was being confronted by an old tweet that seemed to suggest he was against men and women serving together in the military. Lauer really didn't do a good job of nailing Trump down on the subject, which was kind of a shame because the initial question was so pointed.
Neither Clinton nor Trump lost control at any point during the night, or uttered some gaffe that's going to haunt them for the rest of the campaign season. By that standard, both emerged relatively unscathed.
Clinton is getting a lot better (probably all that debate prep) at sounding a lot less "lawyerly" in her answers, although at times she did resort to very carefully chosen language to explain things in her past. Trump is getting a lot better at sound less like your drunken uncle at Thanksgiving, although at times he did double down on some fairly strange statements he's made in the past.
Clinton still has problems with charismatic appeal, although the chosen subject matter didn't really lend itself to warm-and-fuzzy reactions, to be fair. Trump still has problems when pressed on actual details to back up his outrageous claims, but he did sound a lot calmer and less belligerent, even when defending such claims. Maybe his debate prep is also helping him out in this regard. Or perhaps it was again the chosen subject matter, the chosen format (no applause at all), and the chosen audience which helped Trump stay more focused and serious-sounding.
I regularly shy away from proclaiming who "won" and "lost" debates, and since this wasn't even a true debate, it's easy to dodge such a subjective read on the evening. I think Clinton supporters will leave thinking she did very well, and Trump supporters will leave with much the same impression of their candidate. As for undecided voters, I have no idea what impressions they'll take from tonight.
My biggest impression is that conventional wisdom was the big winner tonight -- the idea that "the real campaign starts after Labor Day" was certainly proven to be true tonight. Both candidates obviously know they're in a tough race, and both looked like they seriously want to win in November. Both were cautious about what they said, and much less belligerent than we'll see in the first real debate. That's my snap judgment at the moment, and as soon as I post this, I will be interested to see what everyone else in the punditocracy had to say about tonight.
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