Few people outside of Hillary Clinton's campaign headquarters were quicker to pounce on Donald Trump's stumbles in the first debate than his Republican critics. Some undoubtedly hope that Trump will just hurry up and get wiped out in the election so the GOP can get back to normal. Others are more disappointed, believing that Trump's debate defeat and looming electoral loss could have been averted by simply nominating a normal mainstream conservative instead.
Maybe. It's absolutely true that Clinton picked apart Trump's business dealings and personal flaws during the debate and in the days since, as the #NeverTrump movement predicted. But on policy, she often shied away from hitting Trumpism, and instead targeted the most conventionally conservative parts of his platform. Mostly, she attacked him the same way she would any other Republican opponent.
During the debate, Trump assailed the bipartisan consensus in favor of free trade. Clinton responded, "Well, I think that trade is an important issue, of course." Then after meekly saying we needed to trade with the rest of the world, albeit through "smart fair trade deals," she pivoted to his tax cut, which mostly reflects standard Republican economics.
"[The] kind of plan that Donald has put forth would be trickle-down economics all over again," she said. "In fact it would be the most extreme version the biggest tax cuts for the top percents of the people in this country than we've ever had. I call it trumped up trickle-down because that's exactly what it would be."
Trump again turned to jobs flowing overseas and called the North American Free Trade Agreement, a major Bill Clinton legislative victory, "defective." The 2016 Democratic nominee ignored the implicit criticism of her husband and resumed campaigning against George W. Bush as if he were the Herbert Hoover of our century.
"Well, let's stop for a second and remember where we were eight years ago, we had the worst financial crisis — the great recession, the worst since the 1930s," Clinton said. "That was, in large part, because of tax policies that slash taxes on the wealthy, failed to invest in the middle class, took their eyes off of Wall Street and created a perfect storm."
The only Trump-specific dig she got in had to do with him personally rooting for the housing crisis due to his business interests, with no reference to his populism or economic nationalism. A rapacious businessman pushing 1930s reactionary economics? Clinton might as well have been running against Mitt Romney, Mr. Anti-Trump himself.
Clinton cited "independent experts" saying they liked her tax plan better than Trump's, arguing the GOP nominee's would "disadvantage middle-class families compared to the wealthy, were it to go into effect, we would lose three and a half million jobs. And maybe have another recession." She talked about the tax cut for the rich losing revenues and driving up the debt.
How is that any different than what she would have said about any Republican tax cut since Ronald Reagan's, let alone the tax plans proposed by Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio this year?
Clinton called Trump a climate change denier. While the bit about the Chinese conspiracy is specific to Trump, the basic charge would have been leveled against any Republican nominee this side of Jon Huntsman.
Trump continued to rail against NAFTA. Clinton defended her husband's economic legacy in general, but offered little more than "That is your opinion" as a rebuttal on Bill's signature trade deal. She talked about how she did in fact oppose some trade deals and would crack down on trade violations. Then back to how much Trump's tax cuts would add to the debt and the fact that she would ask the wealthy to pay more.
On foreign policy, Trump was put on the defensive about whether he really opposed the Iraq war or the Libya intervention. The real disagreements then focused on whether we should have withdrawn from Iraq — an argument that was little different than President Obama's with Romney four years ago.
Many conservatives think Trump is soft on Planned Parenthood. Clinton says Trump would endanger Planned Parenthood funding, like any Republican.
To be sure, many of Trump's GOP rivals would have been more experienced debaters and nearly all of them would have had a firmer grasp on policy details. Clinton has been hitting Trump's nationalist, populist position on immigration on the campaign trail as she seeks to shore up support from Latinos and millennials, even if it didn't come up in the debate. And Trump's personal history, from bankruptcies to birtherism, is a huge target
But so far, Clinton isn't behaving as if Trump's more idiosyncratic views are his weakest points. She is just treating him like a ruder, more racist Republican.