Why Clinton hasn’t put Trump away

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the first presidential debate, on Monday. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

My first impression, after watching the opening chapter of the Trump-Clinton debate trilogy Monday, was that really not much would change as a result. Trump had been his rude, sputtering, substance-free self; Clinton had proved herself again to be the diligent studier who pretends to be amused when you know she isn’t.

Supporters of either candidate would be further persuaded, I figured, and everyone else would await round two.

By Tuesday morning, however, it was clear that the collective media had reached a different conclusion. According to all the TV analysis, which now eerily resembles an NFL playoff postgame show, Donald had self-destructed, Hillary had humiliated him, and the dynamic of the race had suddenly shifted — perhaps for good.

For about the thousandth time this year, the headlines portrayed Trump as a political Gulliver bound finally in ropes and about to crash to earth once and for all.

Maybe, I thought.

Except that then I sat in a train station in New York, the morning after, and watched CNN as one of Clinton’s surrogates, the vice president of the United States, rallied a crowd in Pennsylvania with his own brief indictment of Trump. And I decided I’d probably been right the first time.

Despite Trump’s reckless and bullying campaign, Clinton still hasn’t managed to put the race away once and for all. And if you watch Joe Biden’s riff, which is well worth a minute and a half of your time, you might have a window into why.

Speaking to an audience of Drexel students, Biden immediately picked up on the two moments during Monday’s debate that I too had thought, watching it live in our Yahoo News studio, should have been the moments everyone remembered.

First Biden went after Trump for saying that having paid nothing in income taxes made him “smart.” Drawing on a deep well of conviction, his voice laced with disgust, Biden said Trump should tell that to the janitor in the hall, or to his dad who worked 60 hours a week, or to the mothers and fathers who were “breaking their necks” to send their kids in the audience to school.

“I really mean it,” Biden said, sounding like he did. “It angers me!”

Then he pounced on Trump for another astounding moment — the one when Clinton accused him of profiting off the decimation of the housing market, and Trump interrupted her to say, “That’s called business, by the way.”

Biden reminded the students that a lot of their parents had lost the equity in their homes — equity that helped them send kids to college and plan for retirement.

“That equity was insurance,” Biden hissed. “That equity’s what gave them peace of mind when they got into bed. And this is a guy who said, and wants to be president, that it was good business to see the market fail!

“What in the hell is he talking about?”

Now, compare this with Clinton’s real-time responses. I’m not being uncharitable here, because Clinton had a very strong debate, and by any technical standard of debating she won it running away.

But when Trump cut in to declare himself smart for having evaded taxes, Clinton took care to keep smiling and plunged ahead with her prepared civics lesson. “So if he’s paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health,” she went on blandly.

When Trump blurted out, shockingly, that the definition of business in America was to bet on a housing collapse — which, by the way, was very, very bad for American business, if you haven’t heard — Clinton stayed with her clinical points about how many people had lost their jobs and how the Obama administration had brought us back from the abyss.

All of which was fine — as I said, she prosecuted the case ably enough on the merits. What was missing, though, was any kind of emotional investment, any sense of being genuinely offended on behalf of the people Trump insults.

You get the feeling Biden wakes up in the morning shaking his head and muttering to himself, infuriated by Trump’s blatant disregard for the aspirations of worried Americans.

You get the feeling Clinton wakes up and consults her briefing books, concerned chiefly with avoiding anything off-key. She mentioned her father a few times in the debate, but the lines seemed as well ironed as the pantsuit.

Some of this is just personality, and some of it almost certainly has to do with the burdens of being a woman nominee. The media is quick to see Clinton as shrill or hectoring; emotion of any kind is more perilous for a woman, and no one should pretend otherwise.

But as Karl Rove used to say back in the day (and here he was right), you beat your opponent not by attacking his weakness but by undermining his strength. And emotion — ostensibly on behalf of white, working-class Americans — is the only ballast that keeps allowing Trump to bob back up to the surface.

What was stunning about watching Trump Monday was his complete and unapologetic lack of depth. Never have we seen a candidate make less pretense of knowing anything about policy or history. When it comes to actual governance, Trump, at this late date, is still just a guy in a bar, tossing out platitudes he’s heard on TV.

And yet he displayed the mastery of emotion that has gotten him this far. A pure entertainer, he channels better than any candidate who ran this year the cynicism of the white electorate, and not just those who are staunchly conservative.

Loss of control, creeping chaos, contempt for the political class — these are the emotions that have been building in the electorate for years now, and Trump has brilliantly distilled and exploited them.

To really put Trump away for good, you can’t cede the emotional ground to him, preferring to stay at a cerebral remove. You have to compete for it, as Biden would.

You have to sever Trump’s emotional bond with his voters, or at least strain it. You have to expose him as a fraud whose career belies all of this apparent conviction about the American working class.

Imagine if, when Trump made the boneheaded mistake of saying it was just business to bet against the housing market, Clinton had responded with something more like:

“No, Donald, that’s actually not business at all. That’s just the greedy, heartless speculation that real CEOs and real patriots despise, because it destroyed American families while you got rich and laughed. Which is why even your fellow business leaders don’t respect you.”

That would have left Trump looking far worse than sputtering. It would have left him looking small and unworthy.

There are a couple of more debates coming up, and I’d guess that Clinton might win those too, on both the arguments and the atmospherics. But I’d also guess that, without a more emotional assault on his case for the presidency, Trump can remain viable, at least, straight through to Election Day.

We should know by now that Trump isn’t going to just self-destruct. Lord knows he’s tried.