Wednesday night's Commander-in-Chief forum on NBC featuring townhall style questions for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was as close as we've come to seeing a direct debate between the two leading presidential candidates.
It also left Americans with some very clear takeaways. Here are the top five:
1) Clinton can't squash the email scandal
The leading topic during the forum and in the media coverage afterwards was the continued issue of Clinton's use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State. Based on the reaction on social media, moderator Matt Lauer enraged Clinton supporters and surprised Trump backers with his pointed questions to Clinton about the email scandal. The quality of Clinton's responses to those questions are not as important as the fact that the email story still has legs. And every time the story gets mentioned and mentioned prominently, Clinton's poll numbers suffer. Remember, she hit a nadir in the polls in reaction to FBI Director James Comey's news conference announcing why he chose not to indict her. Those poll numbers rebounded and seemed extremely safe until the email story came back into the news before Labor Day when the FBI released the transcripts of Clinton's email questioning. For a forum that was supposed to be dedicated to military and veterans' issues, such a focus on the email story is a big negative for the Clinton campaign. I suspect her advisers recognized this bad result and that's why her campaign hastily arranged her first press conference in almost a year for Thursday morning. In other words, there's been a big shift in this election over the last week or so. Now Hillary needs to whip up a quick news conference to tell us Trump is unqualified, as opposed to Trump constantly telling us that himself.
2) Trump still doesn't sound "presidential"
Donald Trump scored unexpected points late last month when he quickly accepted Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's invitation to meet him in Mexico City. Most of those points were scored based on the visual image of Trump looking like a world leader on the international stage. A few days later he actually sounded presidential when he made his speech at an African American church in Detroit. But Wednesday night he returned to his general pattern of making too many ambiguous statements that sound half baked. He talked about getting "different generals," and went too far by describing the current state of the U.S. military as being "reduced to rubble." And most foolishly, he unnecessarily praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and continued to encourage the generally ridiculous chatter about a possible secret connection between the two of them.
3) Neither candidate has a real plan on terrorism
If you were looking for some reason to feel a lot better about either of these presidential candidates Wednesday night, you were disappointed. Neither Clinton nor Trump spoke of any real new or clear plan to defeat America's violent enemies. And neither seems to understand that to defeat those enemies, we need to win an ideological war just as much as a military one. Neither of them sounds at all like an FDR during World War II or a Reagan during the end of the Cold War. And neither of them seem capable of ever doing so.
4) Trump was on to something when discussing troop levels and naval strength
He waited too long to address this issue, but Trump hit on a winning issue when he quoted the very reduced numbers of our active duty troops and naval ships. If he can somehow tie that issue to the need for more manufacturing jobs and the push for better military pay and benefits, he would have a potent campaign issue going into the final stretch.
5) Everyone was a loser in this forum, even the voters
Campaign strategies and punditry aside, America remains at war today. The last two years have also seen an incredible spike in terrorism both abroad and our own shores. Any soldier or concerned civilian family watching the candidates at that forum just cannot have much confidence in either one of them when it comes to serious leadership in the face of this lethal threat. Even Lauer didn't seem to fully grasp the severity of the situation our troops face as he clearly focused much more on Clinton's email woes and trying to trip up Trump with some of his past statements. Even with a room filled with heroic soldiers and veterans, we were still witnessing a game of political "gotcha."
And if you think this forum was heated, get ready for the debates. Even though Clinton and Trump were never on stage at the same time, the tension between the two candidates was more than evident. Imagine what it will be like when they are indeed head-to-head in the three debates beginning on September 26th. Expect Trump to come up with some one-liner responses to Clinton's continued assertions that he is unqualified for the presidency. Expect Clinton to bring up some more eye opening doomsday scenario accusations against Trump. And if the polls stay this close, we might as well bet on the debates being R-rated along the lines of the raucous GOP debates during the primary season. Stay tuned.