It was supposed to be the substantive counterpoint to a primary season dominated by frivolity, but Wednesday’s national security forum – hosted by NBC and featuring back-to-back appearances by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – was nothing of the sort.
To say it wasn’t television news’ finest hour would be an understatement.
Instead of testing the limits of Trump’s knowledge or probing Clinton to move beyond her standard talking points, the forum’s setup seemed to encourage candidates to assume their usual roles. Trump was allowed to ramble on topics utterly devoid of policy content, while occasionally asserting lies as truths; Clinton was forced to repeatedly defend herself against the same accusations regarding her private email server that have plagued her all election cycle.
Trump was able to play all his greatest, phoniest hits – saying, for instance, he was against the war in Iraq all along. That’s a lie, pure and simple, as has been documented by a whole cadre of journalists by now. But NBC moderator Matt Lauer didn’t correct him, instead rerouting the conversation to a soft-ball referendum on Trump’s temperament.
When a tweet in which Trump seemed dismissive of sexual assault in the military came up, the mogul got to have it every which way, saying first that the tweet was “correct”, and then that “many” agree with him, and finally, in so many words, that he no longer supports it. He did the same routine a second time when asked about his relationship to Vladimir Putin, saying first that Putin’s favorable impression of him would not have any impact on him and then saying the exact opposite thing in the next sentence: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.” No matter, both Trump and Lauer had moved on.
The approach allows listeners to hear whatever they want to hear, something Trump, in his myth-making book, The Art of the Deal, touted as one of his greatest strengths. It also gives Trump an opportunity to parrot compliments he’s received – in this case, from Putin.
Lauer’s not a national security expert and doesn’t have a reputation for being hard-hitting. But even with that disposition and background, he still should have managed to call Trump out some of these things.
Yet to simply blame Lauer for what’s widely considered to be a missed opportunity is to miss the forest for the trees. Sure, he failed to elicit a substantive policy discussion from Trump. But he also failed where every other major moderator has failed as well. If there’s a formula for stopping Trump from coasting on insults and babble, nobody’s found it yet, and playing PolitiFact in real time is no easy feat.
There were a few places where Trump walked himself into a corner, like his comment about how, under President Obama, military generals have been “reduced to rubble” and things have eroded to a point where “it’s embarrassing”. Those remarks came off as deeply unpatriotic. But any resulting controversy, like the comment he made last year about John McCain not being a war hero, will fade.
Trump is winning the military vote handily, after all, as every Republican candidate in recent elections has. It’s a vote that’s disproportionately white, male and lacking a college degree – which is to say, it checks all the right boxes for him. And no outlier comment about generals in a policy forum is going to change that.
What does matter and should scare Clinton is that she just got an ugly preview of the coming debates: despite establishment insistence that Trump’s playground-style taunts won’t work on her in the general, we saw during Wednesday night’s forum that they can.
Trump is already using such tactics against Clinton, as he did at a town hall in Virginia earlier this week when he made a gendered dig about how “Putin looks at her and he laughs”. He’s did it when he observed her to be lacking a “presidential look”, and when he insinuates she’s untrustworthy through silly monikers like Crooked Hillary. It’s an approach Paul Krugman referred to earlier this week as the politics of innuendo. It’s not just Trump who’s employing it, but he’s channeling it more effectively than anyone else in recent memory.
It was evident during the forum on Wednesday night, and it was evident afterwards, when Clinton’s camp came after Trump on all the inconsistencies he spouted to Lauer, attacking his defense of sexual assault in the military, his embrace of Putin and his tarring of military generals.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Republican party attacked Clinton for, of all things, having “no smile”. She was left playing defense against innuendo at an event expressly billed as the antidote to vapid dialogue. If that’s any indication of what we’re in for this fall, Clinton and anyone in support of examining actual political policy needs to come up with a new strategy.