Superior Debate Prep Carries Clinton to Victory in the First Presidential Debate
After months of anticipation, and campaign commercials, debate night arrived and did not disappoint. Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York served as the backdrop for the first of three presidential debates between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and Republican nominee Donald Trump. The three major themes for this debate were: America’s direction, Achieving prosperity, and Securing America.
The two candidates had markedly different approaches to opening the debate. Clinton was painstaking in laying out her comprehensive plan to grow the economy. In Clinton’s plan, job growth was centered on creating clean energy jobs. Clinton noted the need to construct half a billion solar panels and the willingness to devote resources to such an endeavor would boost the economy. In addition to clean energy jobs, Clinton discussed equal pay for women, infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, debt-free college, and the need to increase the tax burden on the highest earners.
In contrast, Trump devoted his opening statement to painting a gloomy vision of the country on the brink of economic collapse. "Our jobs are fleeing the country" says Trump. In his perspective, the U.S. has lost jobs as a result of manipulation by the Chinese government and poor trading policy with Mexico.
Admittedly, the phrase “appearing presidential” is overused and meaningless. However, in its traditional sense, Trump blew an opportunity in this first of three presidential debates to appear presidential. Throughout the 90-minute affair he came across as irritable, ill prepared, and easily drawn into reactionary confrontations. With Trump’s lack of experience in public office, the bar for production in this debate was set abnormally low. Yet despite his pre-debate advantage of having almost no expectations, he managed to squander this advantage by allowing his emotions to prevail. Clinton was able to trigger an emotional response from Trump after she discussed the $14 million loan he received from his father.
Trump unusually referred to this multi-million dollar loan from his father as, "a very small loan." He was never asked to clarify, and thus avoided a potentially damaging exchange. Being the 'Outsider Candidate' has helped Trump appeal to average people. If Trump were successfully portrayed by Clinton as aloof, he would lose much of the support he earned from middle income earners. He regained his footing by wisely filibustering the remainder of the time in that segment by expounding on his list of business successes.
Trump returned to a highly popular campaign position: trade, trade, and more trade. This was likely the strongest segment of the debate for him, as he launched several attacks against former President Bill Clinton’s signature trade deal, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). Trump ridiculed Hillary Clinton for supporting this deal. Clinton defended her husband's trade deal by detailing the economic prosperity of the 90s. In efforts to salvage her record on trade, Clinton informed the audience that she voted against CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) while serving in the U.S. Senate. Trump followed up his NAFTA criticism by highlighting Clinton's initial support of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). He even quoted the former Secretary of State as advocating for TPP claiming it set a "Gold Standard" for trade and job creation.
Clinton provided this zinger to accompany her trade defense: “Well Donald I know you live in your own reality…but that’s just not true.” It was the best she could do, to counter the weight of his trade attacks. Realizing that crawling down a trade rabbit hole would not serve her interests, Clinton pivoted to Trump's tax plan.
Employing a bit of humor when she mocked Trump’s tax plan as ineffectual. She unveiled a new nickname for Trump’s plan, referring to it on two separate occasions as “Trumped up trickle down” economics. According to Clinton, the “Trump Loophole” benefits only the wealthiest Americans while leaving lower income earners behind. She was unapologetic in her stance on Wall Street, announcing the need to change the tax system so that capital gains are taxed on a level playing field with labor.
Trump’s response to her criticism of his tax plan was incoherent, but worse, disconnected from her overall theme of the need to increase taxes on top earners. Trump responded by proclaiming ‘the Fed’ (referring to the Federal Reserve) was making politically calculated decisions to benefit Pres. Obama. Prompted by Trump’s opening, Lester Holt questioned Trump on transparency and his tax return secrecy, asking, “Don’t Americans deserve to know the potential conflicts of interests from their candidates?” Trump affirmed he is not averse to releasing the returns as soon as he is free from a routine audit. But moments later, Trump appeared to relax this position when he claimed he would release, ‘if [Sec. Clinton] releases the 33,000 emails she deleted.’
Clinton raised three viable questions regarding Trump’s refusal to release his tax return:
1) Is he is not as rich as he claims?
2) Is he is not as charitable as he claims?
3) Does Trump refuse to release his taxes because he owes $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks?
Since Trump is steadfast in his refusal to release these documents, voters will never have a clear answer on any of these substantive questions. If November passes without Trump ever releasing his returns, he will be the first presidential candidate in over 50 years to not release.
“If you’re too dangerous to fly, then you’re too dangerous to buy a gun,” Clinton said during the security segment of the debate. She utilized this moment to discuss the gun violence epidemic in the U.S. On average more than 30,000 people are killed with guns each year in the U.S. As a result of this frequency of gun deaths, U.S. citizens have grown numb and apathetic to the destruction of gun violence. After Trump touted his positive relationship with police, namely his recent endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police, Clinton made sure to point out that police are also made safer when the communities they protect are not full of guns.
In response Trump admitted he supported the Democratic initiative to prohibit people on the ‘No-Fly’ list from buying guns. Trump’s reversal on this major gun safety measure was shocking. His campaign has never taken such a hardline position on gun safety. In agreeing with Clinton, Trump bucked the official stance of the Republican Party and his most important endorser – the National Rifle Association.
At one point during the national security segment, Trump directed the following non-factual gibberish to Clinton, “No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” It would have been beneficial for uninformed listening/viewing audience members to have this statement vetted by moderator, Lester Holt. Holt would have best served the public’s interest by explaining to the candidate that ISIS did not exist prior to the War in Iraq. Thus, Secretary Clinton would not meet the age criteria for the presidency if she truly 'fought ISIS her entire adult life.' Facts matter, and it is the moderator’s responsibility to ensure the integrity of the debates is not lost when candidates’ fallacies persist unchallenged.
Following the odd ISIS comment, Trump returned to an oft-repeated campaign theme of “Law and Order,” then doubled down on racially charged campaign rhetoric proclaiming, ‘blacks walk down the street and get shot.’ Trump’s pseudo outreach to the black community has primarily failed due to statements like this. He is oblivious to the offensiveness of his rhetoric. The dystopian outlook of the black community that Trump espouses only exists in legend. According to every statistical metric, the rate of violent crime has dramatically decreased nationwide over the past decade. Moreover, in New York after the termination of 'Stop and Frisk' the violent crime rate continued to decline and did so at an even faster rate than while the failed policy was being implemented.
Clinton failed to capitalize on an opportunity to admonish Trump for the disrespectful, anti-patriotic reference he made about President Obama. Trump stated, “I don’t think global warming is our largest threat like your president.” This vitriolic dismissal of the President of the United States as "your president" as if Pres. Obama does not represent him and the rest of the nation was intentionally worded to delegitimize Pres. Obama. He was shamed into walking back his race-driven, five-year Birther crusade, so he apparently has discovered a new, equally vile path to delegitimizing Pres. Obama.
Clinton was prepared for an attack against her stamina. Without hesitation, Clinton derided Trump's reference to her energy by pointing out she testified before a Congressional committee for 11 consecutive hours, negotiated several peace treaties abroad, and fulfilled her duties as Secretary of State by visiting over 100 countries to build and sustain relationships. Trump's response was feeble in comparison.
Lester Holt is a respectable journalist who was fully deserving of the honor to moderate the first presidential debate. Unfortunately an incorrigible Trump who frequently interrupted exposed Holt’s natural passivity. Holt accurately corrected the record on the constitutionality of ‘stop and frisk’ in New York, on comments Trump made about Clinton’s looks, and on Trump’s support for the Iraq War and intervening in Benghazi. But consistent, well-timed push back, including Trump flatly proclaiming that Holt was wrong, likely means the moderator's attempt to inject fact were lost. Given the personalities he encountered on stage, Holt should be commended for his journalistic integrity.
Aesthetically Clinton appeared comfortable and in control. It was plainly obvious that she was the faster study and put in the requisite time to perform on this grand stage. Trump created an iconic moment for Clinton when he tried to ridicule her preparation. Clinton offered this response for the ages, “Donald criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes I did. And you know what else I prepared for…for being president, and I think that’s a good thing.” This line drew applause from the crowd and silence from her opponent. She controlled her facial expressions to avoid looking dismissive or arrogant during split screens. But most impressive of Clinton’s first debate attributes was her commentary on foreign policy. There, she exhibited a mastery of complex international relations that Trump could never match. His geopolitical ignorance was on full display as well as her intimate understanding of the globe, nuclear proliferation, and the role of the United States in NATO. Clinton played the role of professor and statesman. Her bar was set unfairly high, and she managed to meet and exceed those expectations nonetheless. The lone downfall of her performance is her bar will continue to rise, while Trump’s will continue to be lowered. But one takeaway is unequivocal: Hillary Clinton won the first presidential debate convincingly.