Even as they criticized the rest of his performance for its lies and a general incoherence on basic policy specifics, mainstream and conservative media personalities are largely in agreement that Republican nominee Donald Trump earned more style points than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the first half of their presidential debate on September 26, which focused on the economy and international trade.
But as Vox editor-in-chief Ezra Klein argued in a September 27 blog, the belief among journalists and pundits that Trump “won” the opening economic portion -- or any portion -- of the debate only holds water if you grade the candidate’s braggadocious style as more important than his vacant substance (emphasis added):
This is how it felt to me, too. Stylistically, this section was Trump’s best portion of the debate. He kept slamming Clinton on NAFTA — "the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere” — and spoke with the confidence of a man who knew what he was talking about.
But he didn’t know what he was talking about.
What was stylistically Trump’s best portion of the debate was substantively among his worst (I say among his worst because it is hard to beat the section where he said he both would and would not honor the NATO treaty, and then said he both would and would not adhere to the first-strike doctrine on nuclear weapons). Trump was arguing the central economic theory of his campaign — and he was just wrong. In a section that began with him demanding solutions for our economic woes, he showed himself completely confused as to the nature of not just our economic problems, but the underlying labor market.
The tone of his voice and the confidence of his delivery shouldn’t distract us from the hollowness of his remarks.
From his introductory remarks, Trump unleashed a torrent of falsehoods during the first presidential debate of the general election. Journalists and commentators from across the political spectrum slammed the GOP nominee for his seeming lack of preparation and inability to execute a clear debate strategy. Focus groups of undecided voters conducted by CNN and by conservative pollster Frank Luntz agreed that Clinton trounced Trump on the stage, and a national poll fielded by CNN showed that debate viewers came away thinking Trump had lost “overwhelmingly.” Trump was even needled by reporters for revealing “his famously thin skin” and for failing to control his impulses and “los[ing] the battle against himself.”
And yet, somehow, numerous professional debate-watchers seemed to think Trump actually performed well during the opening portion of the debate, when he attacked Clinton and President Obama on the economy. Ignoring that the country Trump was describing doesn’t actually exist, journalists largely seemed to agree that Trump’s jeremiad was nonetheless effective.
Professional economists who watched the debate, on the other hand, savaged Trump for his repeated lies about the American economy. Trump falsely claimed the American labor market is being hollowed out by trade even when job creation is steady, he reiterated a false right-wing media claim that American incomes are stagnant when they are rising, he repeated his own false claim that the Federal Reserve is acting “politically” to prop up the economic recovery while claiming at the same time that the economy isn’t really recovering, and he lied about his impossible plan to pay down the national debt. And Trump did all of these things during a segment of the debate that commentators currently argue he won.
For months, media critics have lamented how Trump is often graded “on a curve” for his performances and public statements, noting that he is “held to a different standard than Clinton” and his other political counterparts. The widespread perception that Trump outdid himself during the opening minutes of the debate while spouting a laundry list of lies about the economy and trade, proves how persistent this problem remains.