Ever since the first presidential debate ended on Monday, Donald Trump and his surrogates have done everything possible to obfuscate the truth because they know he got walloped. Immediately after the debate, Trump got Fox News’ Sean Hannity to cover for his repeated lies about opposing the Iraq war. Using Hannity, Alex Jones, and Matt Drudge, the campaign widely circulated highly unscientific online polls saying that Trump won the debate. His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, argued that his “restraint”—meaning the fact that he only alluded to Bill Clinton’s affairs without bringing them up outright—was a “presidential virtue” that would help win over women. And Trump blamed the microphone for capturing more than a few low-energy sniffles throughout the evening.
All debate performances result in spin, but bad ones lead to especially egregious spinning, hence the Trump campaign’s flailing on Tuesday. Nonetheless, they got one thing right: For the first 15 minutes of the debate, before he had an hourlong tantrum, Trump got the upper hand on trade. Surrogates seized on the silver lining in the spin room and beyond, and Trump, lampooned for most of his performance, was praised by a good deal of the press for the way he started the debate.
Trump did not “win” the trade portion of the debate so much as Clinton lost it. Trump’s understanding on trade is at best simplistic; at worst, it’s a total fantasy. Whenever he gets into specifics, he betrays his deep-seated ignorance of basic policy. Trump began the debate by saying, “Thank you, Lester. Our jobs are fleeing the country.” This is not true—we’ve added jobs for the last 78 months—but it set the (Millenarian) tone of the next ten minutes. During the portion on trade, Trump claimed that Ford Motor Company was rushing to get out of the country (it isn’t), that China is devaluing its currency (it’s propping it up), and that Mexico and China were thriving because of the jobs they had stolen from us (neither country is thriving).
Trump has been saying this for the last 15 months. It’s effective not because it’s true, or because it suggests a plausible plan of action, but because it speaks to the pain and anger felt in many of the former manufacturing areas of the country that have been particularly hard hit over the last 40 years. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which was negotiated by George H. W. Bush and signed into law by Clinton’s husband, may not be directly responsible for as much of that pain as it has been blamed for over the past three decades. But Trump’s bleak portrait of life in middle America suggests a knowledge of areas hard hit by the decline in manufacturing—blighted areas like my home town in central New York—that isn’t present in Clinton’s Reaganesque paeans to the goodness and greatness of America. Trump may not know what he’s talking about on trade, but his message is working.
Clinton had the upper-hand for most of the debate because she was able to bait Trump into proving her point for her: She got him to admit to housing discrimination when she accused him of racism, and to say Rosie O’Donnell had it coming when she accused him of sexism. But at the beginning of the debate, when the audience was at its largest, Trump was calling the shots: He argued that Clinton was just another politician who was saying things just to get elected. And then Clinton… said things that made her sound like just another politician who was just saying things to get elected. Take this exchange, Trump’s strongest of the night:
Here, Trump does what every politician is supposed to do: Turn his opponent’s strength into a weakness. He baited Clinton into bringing up her decades of experience in government and then threw it back in her face: She’s had 30 years of experience in two branches of government and over that time Ohio and Michigan—swing states—have crumbled. That ultimately led to Clinton’s worst moment of the debate, her Big Lebowski-ish defense of NAFTA:
TRUMP: Your husband signed NAFTA, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry.
CLINTON: Well, that’s your opinion. That is your opinion.
TRUMP: You go to New England, you go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want, Secretary Clinton, and you will see devastation where manufacture is down 30, 40, sometimes 50 percent. NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.
And now you want to approve Trans-Pacific Partnership. You were totally in favor of it. Then you heard what I was saying, how bad it is, and you said, I can’t win that debate. But you know that if you did win, you would approve that, and that will be almost as bad as NAFTA. Nothing will ever top NAFTA.
CLINTON: Well, that is just not accurate. I was against it once it was finally negotiated and the terms were laid out. I wrote about that in...
This was a nightmare moment for Clinton. She painted herself into a corner: She can’t be seen as defending NAFTA, which was one of her husband’s signature accomplishments, because of its deep unpopularity, but speaking out against it would bolster the sense that she’s Machiavellian. Which left her with “That’s your opinion,” perhaps the weakest response one could give in a presidential debate, especially when it’s an opinion shared by millions of voters. That Trump was then able to tie NAFTA to TPP, an issue particularly important to the Bernie Sanders supporters whom Clinton needs to turn out, and to get Clinton to admit she was for it before she was against it a la John Kerry, was a rare moment of tactical ingenuity (or just dumb luck) from Trump.
Clinton should have been better prepared for this exchange. Not only has trade been one of Trump’s keystone issues for the past 15 months, it was one of Sanders’s as well. The fact that she stumbled here on a night where she was otherwise exceptionally well-prepared suggests that she and her campaign—despite having had a year to prepare, and with less than 50 days until the election—still haven’t figured out how to talk about free trade. That this is a crucial issue in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan—she’ll have to win two of three of these states—makes it crucially important for her.
Part of the problem for Clinton is that Trump is making fantastical political promises here. He has not only claimed that he can stop the flow of manufacturing jobs overseas, but that he can bring them back, which no credible economist believes. It’s not going to happen, and the fact that Trump is making an Edenic and deeply cynical promise should be used against him. But saying otherwise means telling the voters who find this promise appealing that they need to suck it up and accept their lot in life, something that would not be a good strategy from any politician, but especially not from the wife of the man who signed NAFTA.
In the next two debates, Clinton should do what she did best on Monday: Attack Trump for being a phony and a fraud. The idea that a businessman who stiffs his workers and doesn’t pay taxes has become the voice of blue-collar America is patently absurd. There’s plenty of evidence that Trump doesn’t actually care about the people he supposedly represents. Clinton brought up Trump’s decades-long history of not paying for completed work, but she didn’t tie that enough to Trump’s economic message. She should use his stiffing of blue-collar workers as a metaphor for his larger campaign: He gets what he wants, then sticks the people at the bottom with the bill.
Later in the evening, Clinton brought up Trump’s reliance on “bait and switch” as a debate tactic, after Trump tried to tie Clinton’s email scandal to his refusal to release his tax returns. This should also be her line on his economic policy. Trump talks a lot about crumbling infrastructure and bringing back manufacturing jobs, but his economic policies make that impossible: The Bush tax cuts lost trillions that could’ve gone to infrastructure repair, and Trump’s cuts will go even further. Moreover, by fighting for things like the estate tax, he’s shown that his biggest commitment is to the richest Americans: People like him. Trump may make it to the White House on the backs of people in Ohio and Michigan, but once he gets there he’ll set to work helping people like Donald Trump.
Most of all, Clinton needs to say something that makes it seem like she actually cares about people who blame NAFTA and free trade for the problems in their communities. “That’s just your opinion” doesn’t do that. Acknowledging that America needs to help the losers in free trade deals, even as the country benefits from it, is a politically risky but ultimately worthwhile strategy. At the same time, she needs to make it clear that there are good jobs that aren’t in manufacturing—most people in the country work in them!—and that she is not going to sell you a bunch of crap about bringing the 1950s back. Instead she should describe her plans for creating better, and better-paying, jobs for people in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Clinton’s death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy against Trump in the first debate exposed him as a monster: a racist, sexist abomination who is unqualified, temperamentally and intellectually, to be president. Now she needs to articulate her own vision for how to run the country, and she should start by disarming Trump of the lone policy advantage that threatens her path to the White House.