The first presidential debate of the season is finally over and it was underwhelming. I remember when I loved watching presidential debates, rooting for my candidate, bouncing around among news channels afterward to catch the punditry and the polls. It used to be kind of fun. Tonight, not so much.
Most commentators seemed to agree that they would have called it a win for Hillary Clinton in a normal election cycle--but this year's race is anything but that. Donald Trump has committed what seemed like political suicide so many times and yet emerged triumphant that most were hesitant to call anyone the winner.
But if there was no absolute winner tonight, there were certainly plenty of losers.
1. The issues.
The debate avoided any substantive discussion of the many difficult issues facing our nation and our world. It almost seemed planned that way, with the night's topics announced beforehand as: America's Direction, Achieving Prosperity, and Securing America--all of which could be used as an excuse for talking about just about anything.
So it shouldn't be surprising that there was much more conversation about whether Donald Trump paid any federal tax and whether he said global warming was a Chinese hoax than there was about what to actually do about climate change or the national debt.
2. The facts.
Fact-checking presidential debates in real time has become a common journalistic practice, which is a sad indicator by itself. This time, fact-checking went into overdrive, with teams of seasoned reporters working hard all night. Politico released a "Wrongometer" so lengthy that even with plenty of scrolling you had to click through three pages to read it all. Trump's been criticized for getting the facts wrong throughout the campaign, so it's not really surprising that most of the errors fact-checkers found came from things he said. But Hillary Clinton had her share too, for instance when she wrongly claimed that Trump's tax plan would fail to bring overseas profits back to the US.
3. The rule of law.
Before the event, moderator Lester Holt of NBC announced the rules: Each candidate would get two minutes to speak in response to a question, followed by ten minutes of open discussion. Even with this generous allotment of free-for-all talk time, the candidates didn't come anywhere near following the rules, which makes you wonder why they were ever announced in the first place.
4. The moderator.
Speaking of Lester Holt, he didn't actually do much moderating. He allowed the famously loudmouthed Trump in particular to interrupt and talk over him, and over Clinton, and he let both candidates keep talking after their time was up. Perhaps he feared offending one camp or the other and damaging NBC's viewership or advertising. In any case, Holt sat silent most of the time while the candidates did whatever they wanted. The New York Times' Kevin Baker quipped that he wished a "relief moderator" could be called in instead.
5. Our allies.
As Clinton pointed out, people in foreign countries tend to watch our presidential debates attentively. Our allies may have been disturbed to hear that they aren't paying for our military assistance (they are) or that the United States should have taken Iraq's oil, which just for starters would violate international law. Or that they might be forced to write off some of our national debt. If people in other countries didn't already have doubts about our political process, they do now.
6. Our enthusiasm.
It was tough to get excited about either candidate. Trump was dependably Trump-like. He wasn't restrained and presidential, as some analysts said he needed to be, but he wasn't as in-your-face as he can sometimes be either. Clinton was stiff and sounded mostly scripted, pretty much what one would expect from her.
That amounted to a debate where the only surprise came when Trump briefly strolled through the "spin room" afterward. And if the event wasn't terribly informative, it wasn't much in the way of entertainment either. "Thirty minutes more of this?" asked one Facebook commenter at the one-hour mark. "I'm out of here." No one could really blame him.