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, TodayShow 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?
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.
In a last swing at her opponent, she pointed out that we don’t attack terrorism by defaming Muslims.
She says we need an “intelligence surge,” which is pretty self-evident. It was unclear whether people understood that surge would require more respect for language study and cultural anthropology than has been the case.
After extracting the empty promise from Trump to not attack his opponent, Lauer asked him what experience he can point to that prepares him for the role of Commander in Chief? Trump answered that he has “built great companies” and “has great judgment.”
Lauer seized upon Trump’s recent admission that he has said things he later regretted and asked if we can afford that in a Commander in Chief? Trump managed to turn, “I didn’t regret it that much” into an extended chest-thumping about all the beat-downs he administered in the Republican primary.
Trump reiterated that in spite of the fact that going to war in Iraq was a mistake, if we had “taken the oil” there would have been no ISIS. The biggest financial shot for the growth of ISIS was looting all the banks in northern Iraq after the Iraqi army folded like a cheap suit. Oil and gas have, at times, accounted for as much as 55 percent of a pretty diversified economy.
He lost a subtle debate with a veteran who wanted to ask about the 20 suicides a day.
Trump said, “Actually, it’s 22.”
The veteran said, “It’s 20.”
Without missing a beat, Trump said that “between 20 and 22 suicides a day” was unacceptable. He invited attention to the “powerful plan” on his website, which sounds like a wonkery challenge in light of what Clinton said earlier.
Lauer listed a number of the policy challenges Russia is posing for the U.S. and asked Trump to account for his apparent affection for Vladimir Putin.
“When he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment.”
He pointed out that Putin enjoys an 82 percent approval rating among “his people.”
On the issue of sexual assault in the military, he was aware that the problem exists but displayed complete ignorance of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or the pending legislation to take rape cases out of the chain of command.
Trump made two big pieces of news this evening.
He claimed that he gathered from his intelligence briefing that President Obama had ignored policy recommendations. Intelligence briefers do not offer policy recommendations.
Following up on his claim that he knows more about ISIS then the generals, he promised that he would have different generals. He seemed to be calling for wholesale political interference in the promotion system of a professional military.
This is not how the U.S. has rolled from General Washington until now. You have to get to the top before you can get fired over politics, or that has been the way it worked.
It’s a slow night for Trump when he makes no news at all. He surfs on the emotions of a room and seldom quits before getting some feedback response. You can picture Clinton sitting quietly while waiting for a question and not being perturbed if she didn’t get one.
Clinton had enough sense not to promise that there will be no terrorist strikes within the U.S. That’s a promise nobody can make when all it takes is one nut with a gun and we have the best-armed nuts in the world. She may wish she had left herself more wiggle room on “no ground troops in Iraq or Syria.”
Both candidates played a solid defense and neither lost. The best accomplishment of the evening was IAVA’s giving voice to veterans’ concerns and their plan to make the Commander in Chief Forum a tradition of presidential campaigns, starting this year.