MONDAY NIGHT’S debate told the story of this year’s presidential race. The Republican primary process failed, producing a nominee who cynically or ignorantly sells a warped view of reality, disqualifying himself with practically every overheated sentence. The Democrats, meanwhile, nominated a flawed but knowledgeable, confident and even-tempered politician.
Donald Trump seemed incapable of moving beyond his slogans which, as ever, were based on his bleak view of the United States. Foreigners are “using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China,” he said. “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us.” He made little effort to respond to moderator Lester Holt’s point that the economy is growing and wages are, in fact, improving. Nor did he really answer Hillary Clinton’s point that the country has had to climb out of a deep economic ditch caused by a variety of forces unrelated to free-trade agreements.
For her part, Ms. Clinton also pandered a bit on trade, advertising her votes against certain trade agreements and unconvincingly attempting to defend her unprincipled waffling on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But when Mr. Trump ludicrously described NAFTA as “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere,” Ms. Clinton refused to take the bait, instead reminding voters of the income and job growth of the 1990s.
Though Ms. Clinton’s economic proposals are hardly visionary, she could at least point out that her plans would not cause a trade war or recession, as many experts believe Mr. Trump’s would. Meanwhile, while Mr. Trump railed about the size of the federal debt, he had no response to Ms. Clinton’s point that his plan would make the debt much bigger. Similarly, when the candidates discussed tax policy, Ms. Clinton noted that the sort of supply-side economics Mr. Trump favors has not produced the economic miracles its proponents often forecast. Mr. Trump’s response? “The wealthy are going to create tremendous jobs.”
Again, on race and criminal justice, Mr. Trump offered a dark portrait of a scared nation: “We have gangs roaming the street. And in many cases, they’re illegally here, illegal immigrants. And they have guns. And they shoot people.” His main “solution” was to reinstate a controversial “stop and frisk” policy that served to alienate more than to protect. Ms. Clinton offered a balanced view favoring reduction in mandatory minimum sentences that have locked some people up for unreasonable amounts of time, community policing, training and other constructive proposals.
The contrast on transparency and character was also extreme. Mr. Trump once again offered bogus excuses for refusing to release his tax returns. Ms. Clinton, meanwhile, admitted she was wrong to use a private email server and offered no excuses. Mr. Trump attempted to pin his racist “birther” campaign on Ms. Clinton, even though, as Mr. Holt pointed out, Mr. Trump carried it on well after President Obama produced his birth certificate. Mr. Trump claimed the better temperament even as he petulantly hectored and interrupted Ms. Clinton through most of the debate.
None of this should have been a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to this presidential race. When the debate turned to foreign policy, Mr. Trump spewed ignorance, claiming the rise of the Islamic State could have been prevented if “we had taken the oil” and that Iran should have been obliged by the deal on its nuclear program to somehow rein in North Korea.
“I haven’t given lots of thought to NATO,” Mr. Trump said, quoting himself from an earlier interview. By the end of the evening he had made clear you could end that sentence with just about any matter of policy and be as accurate.