Debate 2016: Trump didn't win, but neither did Hillary

From the epic Lincoln-Douglas debates to … the Trump-Clinton debacle?

It’s a long jump that world-record holder Mike Powell would gawk at. Candidates’ statements jumped around like frenetic Mexican jumping beans with patchy policy content and no real sequential progression.

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Both apparently support paid family leave in some capacity, so that's something anyway. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDem senator: Pardoning targets of Russia probe would be 'crossing a fundamental line' Trump lawyers looking into special counsel's potential conflicts of interest: reports Trump lawyers asking about presidential pardon powers: report MORE stuck to his baseline that politicians like Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDem senator: Pardoning targets of Russia probe would be 'crossing a fundamental line' Trump officials: Russia meddled in the election Trump lawyers asking about presidential pardon powers: report MORE are “all talk, no action,” but he didn’t exactly shine, either. Unless politics is purely just about entertainment now and we’re talking hair, in which case both candidates had impressive blond bouffant hairstyles going on.

“Secretary you have no plan,” Trump accused. Clinton responded by pitching her new book Stronger Together.

This infantile exchange between the two wealthy New Yorkers was like a little vignette from Saturday Night Live, but it was a real presidential debate. Go figure.

The 90 minutes of Monday’s debate mainly passed in a cacophony of tiresome rhetoric and very little substance, with Lester Holt trying to sneak a word in edgewise now and then. Clinton repeatedly played the part of slamming the brakes on the Trump train every time it tried to get rolling down the track, and Trump actually played (for him) a rather understated role, interjecting with half-hearted jabs at Clinton as the debate pursued its anti-climactic course. Even purely as a spectacle the debate came across flatly. Sparks flew, but they never turned into a fire or a resounding “you’re fired” from Trump.

As GOP communications strategist Bruce Haynes tweeted, “Trump is like a fighting brand. Does good job convincing me HRC should not be president. But doesn’t convince me as well that he should be.”

“She’s got experience, but it’s bad experience,” Trump summarized of his opponent, while Clinton said Trump is a fake who she’s glad her late window-drape-manufacturing father never entered into business with due to Trump’s purportedly fraudulent ways. Going hard for the fear vote, Clinton urged voters to cast a ballot “as if your future depends on it — because it really does.”

During the Republican primary debates Trump’s commanding screen presence and cascade of biting one-liners grabbed the biggest applause, boos and attention, often leading to him being regarded as the winner. In an e-mail sent out Sept. 23 prior to the presidential debate Hillary Clinton accused Trump of “making good TV but not good arguments,” during the primaries and of being “graded on a curve” by pundits. The campaign e-mail also said it would not be as easy for Trump to suck up all the attention from Clinton like he did with Republicans who didn’t have “fundamental disagreements” with him.

Really? Trump’s most memorable moments in the primaries came from his continual strong disagreement with numerous Republican orthodoxies on everything from free trade to Russia policy. Trump’s fundamental bucking of the mainstream was a major part of how he dominated the debate stages: Not by finesse or sophistication, but by drawing sharp contrast and mocking and belittling hesitation or disagreement from his fellow contenders.

If anything the Hofstra debate was made weaker by Trump’s inability to spend more time emphasizing his divergence from Clinton on various files. He quite effectively cast Clinton as a dangerous hawk, but didn't in turn present a proactive or coherent policy of his own. He slammed NAFTA and U.S. trade policy, but evaded Holt's question on the specifics of his plan to rebuild, other than to return to his promise to enact punishing tariffs for American companies eyeing a foreign move out of the country.

One of the understated moments of Monday’s debate came when Trump marked Clinton as one of the politicians who’s helped turn the Middle East into an out-of-control fire. Clinton responded by saying Trump has cheated workers he’s hired, which paled a bit in comparison. She also noted that Trump had said in passing the idea of invading Iraq made sense and flip-flopped on Libya, good points when looking to temperament and decisiveness, but clearly a move away from squarely defending her own record.

Indeed, Clinton had little of substance to offer apart from a perma-smirk and accusations against the "grand godfather" of all that's maligned, Vladimir Putin. She came across confident and well-versed, but not exactly inspiring. Her down-pat answers consistently downplayed her involvement in any nefarious actions and aped various Bernie SandersBernie SandersOPINION | Shailene Woodley: US should run on renewable energy by 2050 Gore: Progressive ideas 'gaining ground' among Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE positions, but without the enthusiasm.

Clinton seemed to borrow enough “no more for-profit prisons” and economic populism postures from Sanders that one almost expected him to run out onstage with a folding chair, WWF-style. Instead Sanders been out and about trying to pressure his supporters into voting Clinton.

Trump also seemed almost resigned to the possibility Clinton might win.

“If she wins I will absolutely support her,” he said at the end, echoing an oddly almost concessionary manner he employed with her through the debate. The Trump who really fights seemed a bit toned down. Where was the part where he says “but she won’t win.”

Where’s high-energy Trump? Does he need to borrow Jeb!’s exclamation mark?

“He was sniffling, he was drinking water, he seemed like he needed a nap near the end,” observed Van Jones on CNN following the debate.

Clinton, though, looked polished because she was, according to Team Trump.

“What you saw tonight was a perfect, mannequin politician,” Trump surrogate Kayleigh McEnany said of Clinton, deriding her as someone who’d practiced ad nauseam at home to get her lines down pat instead of being out and about hearing from real people across the country. Clinton clearly “won” the debate, but who won the votes?

All said who measured out new canvas for their growing tent Monday night?

Probably neither.

If anything perhaps the opposite: both candidates may have lost some enthusiasm from their supporters and undecided voters. Clinton and Trump will be in danger of increasing voter disaffection if there is a repeat performance of Monday's unconvincing excuse of a debate at the next presidential debate Oct. 9 in St. Louis.

Paul Rowan Brian is a freelance journalist whose interests include politics, religion, and world news. His website is www.paulrbrian.com and he is on Twitter @paulrbrian.


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