Opinion

The first presidential debate was a bonfire of the inanities

It was a high-stakes battle. It was a perfunctory farce. It probably changed nothing.

Monday night's presidential debate confirmed that Americans want something more and better — and we're not going to get it. Massive hype accompanied crushing boredom. Ancient history was unearthed while major issues languished. It was a high-stakes battle. It was a perfunctory farce. It probably changed nothing.

The presidential election hinges on a relative handful of undecideds, people who either think both or neither of the two candidates are dangerous and disqualified. Who are these people? They don't seem to know much.

On the debate stage, Trump and Clinton embodied their caricatures in a partisan vacuum chamber, no more, no less. The minute the debate was over — before that, actually, as people faded and logged off early — it was clear we are already over it. Maybe next time will be different.

Then again, why would it be? Both candidates have dug in their heels, and with the two effectively tied, there is no incentive to venture out of their comfort zone. On Monday night, Clinton worked to discredit Trump as if it were her job. But her job ought to start with admitting that America is on the wrong track, and she made clear she won't, period. When asked to account for her vision of America's present and its future, she recited consultant-babble few can remember clearly enough to care about. Imagine a human resources manager with nuclear codes.

Trump was the opposite. Imagine an irate customer with nuclear codes.

For him, the babble was constant, punctuated by discrediting attacks on Clinton that drove home the same painful truth time and again: The Democrat actually thinks we're on the right track. Not just says. Thinks.

And so last night's debate ground itself to a standstill. We're not budging, said the two proud old wealthy boomers. You do it. You the People.

What's a disillusioned People to do? Well, the ideal, which for obvious reasons dare not speak its name, is a razor-thin Trump loss — seemingly the only thing capable of shocking and stunning Clinton into understanding that she deeply misunderstands the tenor and trauma of the times. Were there any public confidence that Clinton could get the message any other way, we wouldn't be here.

My second choice? A razor-thin Clinton loss. That means no mandate for Trump, not even within the Republican Party, forcing him to accept that grasping the mood of the moment is necessary but insufficient to surviving the White House. (Think of Bill Clinton's risible first term.) But the risk of abetting too big a pendulum shift toward Trump is serious. On the one hand, if people pile on, his fringiest supporters could be drowned out and re-marginalized by a genuinely broad-based populist movement — what you almost have to imagine Trump really wishes he could lead. On the other, Trump has given the people no confidence in how he would really govern, or who he'd have do it in his place. Even if he squeaks in.

We the People are clearly torn, and we're not happy about it. And so we shall remain, unless Trump or Clinton uses the next debate to stop safely running rackets — and start giving the silent minority of undecided voters a reason to take a stand they can believe in.

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