Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, and Republican candidate Donald Trump participated in the Commander in Chief Forum this week hosted by Matt Lauer.
Clinton – Andrew Harnik/AP, Trump – Evan Vucci/AP
Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, and Republican candidate Donald Trump participated in the Commander in Chief Forum this week hosted by Matt Lauer.

Commanders in Mischief: Hillary and Trump Win, Matt Lauer Loses

Steve Russell
9/9/16

From Pier 86 in New York City, the U.S.S. Intrepid, survivor of five kamikaze attacks and a torpedo strike in WWII, bravely handled a new patriotic duty by hosting the “Commander in Chief Forum,” a quasi-debate where the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history made serial appearances with the same moderator, Today Show host Matt Lauer.

The sponsoring organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is fighting uphill against the axiom that foreign policy does not turn U.S. elections. IAVA is also concerned about continuing commitment to the reforms begun within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lost the coin toss and therefore had to go first, giving Republican candidate Donald Trump the advantage of seeing her cards before he had to come to the table.

Clinton’s default reaction to a problem is to wonk it to death; Trump’s is to raise his voice and pound his chest. Chest-pounding is better TV, and it’s undeniable that Clinton tends to walk so far out in the policy weeds that even those who stay awake can hardly see her.

However, the polling says that Trump has got a woman problem that will keep him from winning this election. Will women—particularly white, college-educated suburban women—be casting a vote for commander in chief based on entertainment value?

Lauer had a tough job. He asked for an agreement from each candidate to stick to his or her qualifications and not attack the other. Both agreed that would be a good idea, but neither kept their promises.

He started Secretary Clinton off with a gimme: what is the most important trait for a commander-in-chief?

“Steadiness.”

To the extent she’s right, that describes Trump’s advantage for the evening. For Trump to get through the evening without setting his hair (or anyone else’s) on fire would be an exhibit of steadiness more so than he has in the past. Trump is being what we call in the big university “graded on a curve,” in competition with his own past rather than with everybody else who has ever run for president. To be “steady,” Clinton must be unflappable no matter what is thrown in her face; Trump need only be sane.

Clinton was more successful in turning the email scandal blade aside than she has been in the past. To the theoretical possibility that her private server might have been hacked, she pointed out that anything is possible but there is no evidence that her personal server was hacked but there is evidence that the State Department system was hacked in the same time period.

She defended her actions in Libya by pointing out that the other choices were not particularly attractive.

In a discussion of the veteran suicide problem, Clinton delivered a vintage slab of Clinton wonkery when she said, “I rolled out my mental health agenda last week and there’s a whole section on veterans’ needs.”

Unfortunately for the state of politics, when the policy answers to veteran suicide show up they will emerge from just such wonkery. But those pols who don’t learn how to campaign in poetry never get the opportunity to govern in prose.

She wound up with some fairly clear statements in that it will be easy to hold her responsible for keeping her word or not.

She would not put ground troops back into Iraq or Syria… provided everyone understands that special operators don’t count. Everyone knows there are some 5,000 GIs in Iraq right now and she’s not talking about withdrawing them.

She wants to go after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to decapitate ISIS, just as taking out Osama bin Laden decapitated Al Qaeda.

She still says that persons who can’t fly on commercial airliners because they are thought to have terrorist connections ought not to be able to buy guns. The result would probably be a smaller terrorist watch list, but it’s hard to see much value in attaching the label if you can’t say why. The list is right now either overinclusive or irrational or both.  If fixing the list is the price of keeping guns from people on the list, so much the better.

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