Hillary Clinton arrived at last night's presidential debate
after five days sequestered for rehearsal in Westchester's Doral Arrowwood hotel; Donald Trump, by contrast, kept up his heavy schedule of campaign rallies
, and seemed keen to mock Clinton's highly-publicized preparation.
There was always a chance such a boot camp could backfire. Clinton already faces a struggle against her reputation as the creature of spin-doctors and professional politicians -- a series of scripted statistics doesn't humanize anyone. Renaissance politicians knew this, and praised the art of sprezzatura, or "studied carelessness," the display of casual genius. (It's also a term for the star musician who implies he's never needed to practice.)
That Hillary Clinton emerged from this debate as only half-robot, therefore, is largely down to the policy-heavy nature of moderator Chris Wallace's questions. Pre-scripted lines may not suit a heated exchange of insults about infidelity, but they're good when candidates are keen to show that they're on top of the minutiae of health care policy.
It helped, too, that Clinton went first in the debate's opening question on the composition of the Supreme Court, allowing her to set out her stall before Trump's rhetorical peregrinations had a chance to derail her. She repeated her key facts early and often: twice, we heard about the 33,000 Americans reportedly killed by gun violence each year.
By contrast, Trump steamed straight into trouble. The advantage of rehearsing lines is that you get to be sure the statements you're coming out with have basic internal logic -- by the opening minutes, Trump seemed to be promising that he'd appoint everyone one of his 20 favorite judges to the Supreme Court by the time he'd finished his term. One can only assume he has received advance information of a high death rate on the bench.
Elsewhere, Trump proved yet again that he is easily rattled. Clinton played presidential for most of the evening, but she was keen to drop in a few careful slights at her opponent's virility: it was noticeable that Trump lost focus first after she accused him of "choking" during a confrontation with Mexico and then when she labeled him Moscow's "puppet" ("no, you're the puppet," he replied).
It seems obvious by this stage of the campaign that Donald Trump's vision of the presidency is as the supreme expression of masculinity; as I wrote elsewhere this week, "when you're a star they let you do it" isn't just his approach to sexual predation, but his subliminal campaign slogan. He has cast himself in this particular play as the ultimate American "winner." So it's no surprise that Clinton's insinuations of weakness and cowardice landed her strongest psychological blows.
Trump stuck to his talking points too, if more haphazardly. The word "deal" cropped up in his speech 14 times during the 90-minute debate -- his insistence on NAFTA as "one of the worst deals ever" was most obviously reminiscent of the sneering film criticism offered by one of the most popular characters on "The Simpsons," the overweight comic book guy ("Worst film evah").
At other moments, he sounded more like Al Capone running a protection racket ("We protect Saudi Arabia. Why aren't they paying?") But most of the time he was recognizably Donald Trump, reality TV star, the man who never saw a storyline that couldn't use more drama. Would he recognize the legitimacy of a Clinton victory? "I'll keep you in suspense, okay?"
Even Trump, however, was more presidential, more prepared, than in any of his previous debates. If anything, he was just too predictable. The old lines about Clinton's long association with the Washington establishment -- "she's been doing this for 30 years" -- are effective with the base, but now familiar. Similarly, Clinton's prep showed best when she tapped into themes her campaign has already developed with attack ads against her opponent.
She moved quickly to interweave the chronology of those "30 years of experience" with that of Trump's alleged mistakes
, in a line clearly designed to echo a timeline feature already running on her website. Attacks on Trump's treatment of illegal immigrant workers, or preference of Chinese steel were clearly levered in, but no less effective for it.
The truth is that America saw two over-rehearsed actors take the stage. I started debate watching straight after seeing actress Rachel Weisz perform in New York, in a play called "Plenty" at the Public Theater. Official reviews for Weisz aren't allowed out until next week, but one thing can be safely said about the back-to-back comparison: neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have a tenth of the spontaneous sprezzatura
of an Academy Award winner. Even if Donald Trump did become the first major presidential candidate to spend a debate insisting that he should have won an Emmy. Yes, really.