An estimated 100 million viewers had an unvarnished look at the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on Monday night. The nationally televised — and live-streamed — debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton showed the two for who they are and so gave the American electorate a chance to make a more-educated decision on Nov. 8.
Trump was subdued at the beginning, but his brashness and his debate-from-the-gut style soon broke through. Whether that helped or hurt him is itself debatable, as the Republican nominee has enjoyed much of his success among his base for shooting from the hip and “telling it like it is.” Clinton, by contrast, presented the carefully prepared, policy -focused and temperate alternative, who pounced on a number of opportunities to put Trump on the defensive.
Judging the candidates on their delivery — the so-called style points that are not very important, but have had an effect in close elections — it’s safe to say that we emerged from Monday night much as we were when the debate began. This election pits the hard-charging outsider against the politically seasoned and experienced policy wonk, and whether you believe the political system to be broken or in need of breaking will likely inform who you vote for in November.
Clearly, the two candidates have very different views of where the United States is and where it’s headed, and that was on full display during the debate. Trump described the economy, trade deficit, inner cities, infrastructure, NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal as “a disaster” or some variation on “the worst deal ever,” brought about by incompetent politicians, including Clinton. His solution for most of these problems was a commitment to “get very tough” on each of them.
Clinton, the conventional politician, offered specific policies for the problems she enumerated. On the issue of race and law enforcement, for example, she said the country needs to “deal with mandatory minimum sentences. … We need more second-chance programs,” and she called on ending private prisons in the state prison system. Such specifics provided a contrast with Trump, but it is an axiom of presidential politics that not everything a candidate advocates in the course of a campaign is actually pursued or even achievable once the candidate is elected.
And then, of course, there were the attacks, where both candidates scored. Trump, for example, took heat for not releasing his tax returns, but returned the assault by saying that he’d do so when Clinton released the 33,000 missing State Department emails supposedly stored on her private server.
Over the last few election cycles, voters began to question the value of presidential debates. Monday’s debate proved their value. There was nothing hidden on that stage. And if there was little in the way of theatrics, it was because the candidates were playing themselves. That’s not a bad thing.