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Clinton-Trump debate should leave us all embarrassed

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, stands with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y.
Evan Vucci | AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, stands with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y.

Most political pundits says Hillary Clinton won Monday night's first presidential debate. Most online polls show Donald Trump was the winner. But one thing's not really in dispute: America lost.

We've become accustomed to nastier rhetoric in this election, but last night's contest set a new low bar for general election debates. Whether you were appalled by Trump's frequent interruptions, the personal attacks started by Clinton that Trump then returned, or the fact that neither candidate even tried to go into any real detail to explain their proposals, serious voters were left without much to hold on to other than embarrassment.

Anyone who watched the debate would be hard pressed to find any memorable policy or position explained by either candidate last night that made any real impression. The only thing that really stood out during the debate, and even now a day later, was just how nasty and personal it became almost immediately.

Of course, it's not that voters in the past have been swayed by any erudite greatness of our candidates of yesteryear. We haven't seen anything on the intellectual and collegial level of the Lincoln-Douglas debates since, well since the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But the demeanor and appearance of the candidates in most of the debates of the television era have given most voters plenty to latch on to and make a clear, if wholly superficial and emotional, decision.

As Dilbert creator Scott Adams was the first to point out with the term he coined, the "fake because," voters usually make up their minds about candidates based on emotional and superficial factors like physical appearance and tone of voice. But these privately decided voters cling to the more substantive issues brought up in the debates or from external news events to find rational reasons to justify their emotional/irrational voting choice. After that, they become ready to publicly declare their decision. And throughout the years, most debates have provided plenty of high profile statements and incidents for the voters to latch onto and use as their fake reasons to support their candidates.

Last night didn't provide any real opportunities for shier Trump or Clinton supporters to come out of the political closet. There was plenty of fodder for each candidates' already enthusiastic supporters to choose from, as witnessed by the fact that #TrumpWon was the #1 trending topic on Twitter Tuesday morning, but they'd be excited and declaring victory no matter what.

For the more sober voters still trying to come to grips with their reluctant support for either Trump or Clinton, and the polls show there are millions of Americans in that boat, the debate provided nothing but more frustration. The "good" news is that there are two more presidential debates to come and there's a slight chance the questions, answers, and general candidate behavior will be better. Of course, there's also a chance it'll get worse.

In that sense there truly was one winner in Monday night's debate: the anti-depressant industry.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.