Don’t confuse critics with box office. That’s what Ronald Reagan famously quipped to his Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett when he was being criticized by a hostile media. President Reagan, the veteran actor knew the difference and it was one of the keys to his electoral success. Confusing the two is behind much of the smart set analysis of Monday’s presidential debate. Pro-Trump pundits are frustrated that he missed some opportunities to connect when Mrs. Clinton led with her chin. And Clinton loyalists (read that as “all of the mainstream media”) would have declared her the winner if she were carried out on stretcher.
But none of that matters. The only way to count victory is by moving votes. On that count Trump’s less is more strategy seems to have worked. Polls and focus groups on the simple question of who won the debate shows that it was about a draw, but the same surveys also show that Donald Trump moved some undecided and even Clinton voters into his camp. And that’s what counts. (Here, here, and here.)
Voters got it. But the pundits – who generally want to score a presidential debate like a high school debate tournament – missed it There is much more going on in a debate than just the rhetorical thrust and parry and the mastery of policy details A presidential debate is also a job interview, an unspoken conversation between the candidates and the American people about trust, strength, compatibility, and more. These things are hard to quantify, particularly for a pundit class that often misses the forest for the trees.
But then, who is more out of touch with the American people than your average pundit? You might be tempted to reply: “your average politician” but I don’t think that’s right. Politicians must still face voters which means that they must interact with them too. Pundits – writers and talking heads – talk mostly to each other.
Moreover, what’s important to pundits is rarely what is important to voters. We shouldn’t be surprised. They form a distinct subculture with its own tastes and priorities, not a representative sampling of the American people. Further, all of the incentives are to impress other journalists – not the public. Other journalists determine one’s reputation, they invite each other on shows, and make hiring and firing decisions. But we’re talking about politics – and in elections it is only the voters who matter.
Pundits assume that “average voters” don’t see the obvious – that Hillary is unnatural, unlikable, and phony. They assume that when Hillary dissembles or outright lies that it’s only pundits that see it – that they are the sole possessors of a secret knowledge. There is a tendency to think that voters are stupid and that the games candidates play are slyly effective. But they’re not and this election is in part a repudiation of the approach. Voters are savvy and are tired of the transparent dishonesty.
Enter Hillary Clinton. She had a solid 1996 debate – she had her focus group tested talking points, she had her pre-written zingers, and she had her off-putting self-satisfied wiggle. Imagine 8 years of that. But it all fell flat. It looked staged, phony, and dated, much like Mrs. Clinton herself. So it served to do nothing so much as reinforce the impressions people already had about her. And that isn’t good. An NBC poll conducted last month found that only 11% of voters believe she is “trustworthy.” (Who are the 11%?)
It’s true that Trump missed opportunities to land some haymakers during the debate – Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, when Mrs. Clinton suggested all Americans are racists, and perhaps most of all when she tried to characterize Trump as a misogynist – a woman hater. Trump showed restraint and resisted returning fire over Bill Clinton’s decades long abuse of women, the accusations of rape, of Hillary’s active involvement in the cover-ups, and her vicious smears of Bill’s victims. In doing so Trump played against type – he was restrained in a way he has not been in the past but that also gives the story legs. He made himself seem sober and controlled and, probably intentionally, forced the press to write about what he himself didn’t say.
A friend who worked in the White House likes to say that people think Washington is like what they see in House of Cards when it is really more like Veep – vapid, vainglorious, self-serving,smug, and ineffectual. And while Trump made himself look safe, that’s exactly what they got from Hillary Clinton.