By RICK KLEIN
The first joint forum of the general election, less than 20 days before the first scheduled debate, previewed the sharp messaging that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump plan to employ for the rest of their campaigns. They couldn’t help making arguments about their opponent — but their own weaknesses were on stark display.
The forum underscored an oft-overlooked point: Clinton and Trump defy conventional labels regarding foreign policy, especially as they traditionally attach to their respective parties, to an unusual degree. Who’s the hawk? Who’s the dove? That’s not a judgment that can be made based on their policies or their demeanors. This campaign is about them — as people — far more than it is about their convictions.
Here are five things Wednesday night’s Commander-in-Chief Forum, hosted by NBC News, told us about the coming debates:
Decisions versus temperament
It’s clear from the tone of the questions and attacks Wednesday night that attention will center on Clinton’s record and decisions in public life and, for Trump, on temperament and judgment.
That means more scrutiny of Clinton’s support for the Iraq War and of Benghazi, particularly after Clinton said the U.S. “didn’t lose a single person” in Libya.
For her part, Clinton is poised to point out Trump’s contradictions and to call out his false claim that he was opposed to the Iraq War from the start. Perhaps more intriguing will be how she focuses on Trump’s temperament, calling into question his fitness to be commander-in-chief simply on the basis of things he’s saying onstage.
Emails bounce back
If Clinton thought stories about her email server and use would play out before debate season, that is clearly and entirely wrong. Talk of her emails consumed nearly half her allotted time Wednesday night — and that was without Trump even being in a position to challenge her directly.
Partly as a consequence of answering so few questions in recent weeks, there are many unanswered questions about Clinton’s emails, not to mention more disclosures likely to come this month and next. Clinton is still working on a clear, crisp explanation for why she used a private server and whether that reflects on her judgment — issues Trump will look to exploit.
Trump is an improviser
There’s no debate briefing book in the world that would suggest a candidate for president of the United States praise Vladimir Putin for his approval rating, insult top U.S. generals and sound off about what can be learned from the body language of top-secret intelligence briefers.
Trump has been explicit that he’s not preparing for the debates in any traditional sense and he proved that by bringing his free-wheeling style to the forum. Whether it’s advisable for Trump to essentially wing it in a debate is its own question. Beyond that, don’t underestimate how much that challenges Clinton, who would much prefer sticking to a script than waging an improv battle.
Personality trumps policy
That pun is only slightly intentional, since the same goes for Clinton and Trump. These are two of the largest personalities to ever grace a presidential ticket, and that becomes more obvious when the camera lights are on. Both are prepared to defy and redefine conventional labels; try to sort out, for example, who the hawk and who the dove was at the Wednesday night forum.
Neither candidate lacks for confidence, and neither is prone to giving ground — whether that’s Clinton on emails or Trump on Putin. It’s a recipe for some disagreements as big as the personas involved.
Time for homework
If the challenge was to look like a commander-in-chief at the Commander-in-Chief Forum, one could argue that neither candidate succeeded. Clinton appeared defensive and combative at times as she was forced to explain her choices and record. Trump talked around a range of questions and offered at times contradictory answers. Both gave their opponents fresh fodder for attacks.
It may be that the first forum will only drive more interest in the third-party candidates — the people who are lobbying for inclusion in the highly anticipated debates.