Micek: Millennials pick best of the worst
PHILADELPHIA – There's almost something poetic about watching the first presidential debate of 2016 in the city that midwifed American democracy.
This is a gritty town that takes its politics seriously. Punches and counterpunches are expected.
In a bar off a narrow street in Center City, in the first days of fall, they're watching the debate the Philly way. Beers in hand. Chicken wings on the table. The TV's up loud.
Thankfully, in their first head-to-head match-up of the 2016 campaign, the two towering egos on stage at Hofstra University gave them plenty of fodder.
Things started genially enough, with Republican Donald Trump even promising to call his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, by the honorific "Secretary."
It didn't last.
From free trade and taxes to crime and terrorism, the historic debate between the first woman to win a major party's presidential nomination and the first reality TV star to come within striking distance of the White House quickly careered off the rails.
After parrying and cross-talking Trump on NAFTA, which the real estate developer called "the worst trade deal ever signed everywhere," Clinton offered this admonition in the tone a parent reserves for an overtired child: "Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts," she said.
Trump, who closed a month-long double-digit polling gap to within the margin of error on Monday night, pouted and jibed, his doughy visage a symphony of tics and sniffles, as he offered up whopper after whopper.
And they were so easily debunked.
Yes, Trump enthusiastically backed the removal of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadaffi. Yes, he supported the war in Iraq.
Yes, he unashamedly traded on the racist birther lie for more than four years after President Barack Obama produced his long-form birth certificate.
And, yes, he was wrong when he tried to tell NBC News anchor Lester Holt that "stop-and-frisk" was not declared unconstitutional (it was). Yes he did call climate change a "hoax."
So he was booed by the crowd top-heavy with young Democrats.
Lustily. Enthusiastically. Repeatedly.
The crowd of twentysomethings mostly applauded Clinton, who's struggled with her own transparency issues over her private email server and the accumulated baggage of three decades in public life.
Yes, she probably overplayed the number of jobs her economic plan would produce. But Clinton scored points with the Philly crowd when she went deep on the the systemic causes of violence, of going past just "stop-and-frisk" and restoring law and order, as Trump said he would, without offering much in the way of specifics.
Clinton needed the win heading into Monday night's showdown. And she got it.
Instead of turning tight-lipped and lawyerly as some thought she might, she laughed her way through much of the commercial-free, 90-minutes' worth of TV.
Clinton's fact-heavy zone defense worked. Trump wasn't able to break through, and was left sputtering, finally, about Rosie O'Donnell and 400-pound computer hackers.
The crowd here erupted at "Trumped-up trickle down." And they erupted again when Clinton invited Trump to "join the debate by saying more crazy things."
So what was on the line? Not much — just everything.
"The future of America, really," Jon Shahar, a Clinton voter said. "This is the most frightening election that's ever happened."
To these millennials, facing towering college debt and the mess of a country their elders handed them, the stakes are high.
"This is the scariest election, I've ever seen," Shira Scott, 24, who cast her first ballot in the 2012 election pitting President Barack Obama against Mitt Romney, said. "Both candidates are not ideal. We're picking between who's the worst. It's kind of scary."
Lauren Newman, 25, put it this way: "I think a lot of people are struggling with (whom) to vote against.
"Trump is a very dangerous candidate," she continued. "I'm gay. I teach in a charter school. He's only going to make this country more divisive."
It was a debate the real Founders, the ones who scrapped and fought with each other, not the sanitized, animatronic Hall of Presidents' Founders, would have liked.
It's the kind of debate that Philadelphians expected: With punches and counterpunches. And plenty more to come before Nov. 8.
John Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.