Image courtesy of NBC News
Clinton Vs. Trump:
Sparks Turn Into Explosions in First Debate
| published September 27, 2016 |
By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Arguably, never before in U.S. history has there been a Presidential debate with two more stylistically different candidates on the same stage, and that contrast brought both drama and mayhem within minutes.
In a forum watched by what experts believe was the largest television audience in history, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump faced off in the first of three scheduled Presidential debates Monday night. The freewheeling, often boisterous debate came even as polls show that the race has tightened, especially in battleground states.
With the election just 42 days away, Clinton and Trump met on stage at Hofstra University in New York in front of about 1,100 people in the auditorium and an estimated 110 million watching on television or following the debate in live streaming.
Right out of the starting gate, the candidates’ approaches brought a clash of styles and substance as moderator Lester Holt—anchor for NBC’s Nightly News—asked the two candidates to address what most Americans consider the biggest challenge of the next few years: jobs and the economy.
The topic sparked an intense conflagration of discord over a variety of topics, including trade deals such as NAFTA, as well as issues of manufacturing, taxation and economic fairness. In the first of many sharp clashes, Clinton defended the long-term economic impact of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) while Trump deplored the trade deal as a disaster for American jobs and the U.S. economy as jobs have moved to Mexico and China.
In an exchange notable for its rapid descent into cross-talk, moderator Holt quickly found it difficult to manage the flow of the conversation as each candidate leveled charges against the other and as both candidates—most especially Trump—bulldozed across Holt’s attempts to redirect the discussion into other areas of economic concern.
The debate was organized to include several 15-to-20 minute segments on a variety of topics, mostly economic, but that format was wrecked within the first 15 minutes as the intense back-and-forth spiraled out of control and wandered into the topic of foreign policy, terrorism and ISIS. Clinton attempted to direct the viewing audience to her website where, she explained, there would be fact-checkers engaged in real-time analysis of the debate’s talking points, but Trump then redirected the narrative toward charge that Clinton’s website also includes plans to defeat military adversaries, including ISIS, something he said was providing ISIS with a detailed blueprint of U.S. strategy and tactics. This prompted an explosive exchange over the content of Clinton’s website, and even the length of time she had been fighting terrorism.
It would be one of many moments when Holt’s efforts to keep the conversation focused and on-topic would fail as the debate careened sharply from one subject to another, often in a kind of stream-of-consciousness process as Trump veered unpredictably and Clinton sought to absorb the sudden shift. As a result, some issues and topics remained unaddressed by the time the prearranged two hour stopping point arrived.
Many political analysts had predicted that the billionaire Trump would engage a more cautious, restrained style during the debate, prognostications which looked to be proving themselves accurate for the first few minutes. But any such plan by Trump to remain steady, magnanimous and restrained—if it had ever existed—was abandoned five minutes into the forum as Trump slammed Clinton for having spent decades of time in public service, but having offered no tractionable solutions to the nation’s problems. It was a talking point Trump would return to frequently throughout the two hour debate.
Clinton appeared at first stiff and over-prepared—the result possibly of up to one week of intensive prep work and practice which included less policy sharpening and more focus on combating Trump’s unpredictable style and tone on the stage. Despite Holt’s reminder to the audience in the room to remain silent during the forum, Trump elicited a burst of shouts and applause when—challenged by Clinton on his tax returns—he suggested that he would gladly release his tax information just as soon as Clinton releases the 30,000 emails she and her staff deleted. There was a visceral roar from some in the hall, followed by Holt scolding the audience for engaging in distraction. Trump’s comment appeared to briefly rattle Clinton, who reminded those watching that she now admits that it was a mistake to maintain a private email account while serving as U.S. Secretary of State, but that there was no equivalence between her emails and Trump’s taxes.
Still, many analysts suggest Clinton won the debate on points and on facts. Despite Trump’s bombastic style and aggressive tone, it was Clinton who at times appeared to be rattling and unbalancing Trump—goading him into dangerous waters on subjects ranging from his tax returns to his uneasy relationship with his employees to his business bankruptcies. Clinton seemed at times to be pushing Trump into defensive mode on several topics, forcing him to explain his past comments on race, women, religious minorities, and even the economic “fairness” of the Great Recession. Clinton attempted to rattle Trump for his positions on clean energy and global warming, telling those watching that the billionaire still thinks of global warming as “a hoax perpetrated the Chinese,” a charge which Trump immediately rejected.
Both candidates sparred intensely over facts, or the specifics of where actual “truth” resided on certain topics, with Trump challenging Clinton on the law enforcement strategy of “stop-and-frisk,” ruled unconstitutional in several states and cities, and both candidates in disagreement over what those recent court rulings actually mean. Clinton and Trump also differed sharply on African-American communities and the best remedies for endemic problems of crime, poverty, and gun violence in black communities. Each argued stringently over the relative merits of their tax and spending plans, and the impact such plans would have on the middle class.
Clinton, appropriating some of the same talking points once used by her Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders (D-VT), approached economic renewal from the standpoint of fairness. Trump angled toward the subject from his perspective as a businessman, repeatedly returning to the his central talking point of a Hillary Clinton with decades of experience in Washington but nothing effective to show for that work. Several times during the debate Trump cited Clinton’s “30 years” of public service as evidence not of her achievements but of her failures; Clinton, to Trump and his supporters, is just another politician.
Though he often seemed thrown back on his heels, Trump nevertheless offered his toughest performance yet when it came to rapid responses to Clinton’s most direct ordnance. When Clinton chided him for attempting to exploit the recession to make fast money from other people’s losses, Trump merely retorted “that’s called good business.” Likewise, when Clinton attempting to puncture him with the oft-cited charge that he has occasionally refused to pay contractors and vendors for work performed, Trump slapped back hard, suggesting that those contractors and vendors engaged in shoddy work and were owed nothing.
This was a zero-sum game for Trump, who offered little consolation to Clinton’s central narrative of deep Washington experience and vast political knowledge. For Trump, it is all about common sense and sort of street smarts that made him the real estate mogul and billionaire that he is. Though Clinton at times attempted to mask the fact that she was appalled by Trump’s rapid retorts (in fact, her incredulity was meant to be transferred to those watching on television), she seemed unable to make the charges stick to Trump who preferred to wear his businessman’s credentials like Teflon coated armor.
But conversely, Trump did at times seem profoundly underprepared, even for some of the very questions he admitted he expected to encounter—including his once controversial stand as one of the nation’s leading proponents of the “birther” argument that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Rather than dismissing the brouhaha by simply telling Holt that he had changed his mind and moved on from the contentious issue, Trump again sought to redirect the origins of the birther narrative to Sidney Blumenthal, an old Clinton family political ally and handler. In fact, Trump tried to claim credit for the whole fracas, saying—in effect—that it was his efforts that finally forced Obama and the state of Hawaii to produce the birth certificate.
But some of Trump’s efforts to swat away some of what was thrown at him forced the conversation into deeply troubling areas, including Trump’s alleged past comments and writings regarding race, for which the GOP candidate had little to offer in the way of explanation or mea culpa. Clinton arrived to the debate stage with a heavy dossier of opposition research on Trump. Trump makes little effort to conceal that he is a political novice, and many of his most ardent supporters would want it no other way; their man is a political outsider who reflects the anger and frustration felt by millions of Americans exhausted by decades of gridlock and broken promises.
Even some Republicans, however, agreed that of the two candidates, Clinton was the one who seemed the most prepared with facts and figures and ready responses to the questions posed by Holt. But many Democrats watching also conceded that Clinton was scripted, stilted, even wooden in her responses and her retorts, often talking with notably extreme care and precision (as if she were attempting to run out the clock), and giving what seemed overly rehearsed answers through a tight, controlled smile. Some observers noted that she appeared to be straining to maintain facial control—an act which may have lent additional rigidness to her facial reactions. Trump, on the other hand, was loose to the point of distraction, frequently drinking water, sniffling and snorting, and engaging in an over-the-top range of facial tics, grimaces and eye rolls. The contrast seemed at times comical and surreal.
In past debates with his Republican adversaries, Trump has been highly unscripted, a tactic which worked to his favor in that crowded field top heavy with political pros and political insiders. GOP analysts hope that Trump’s branding skills hold with voters through the aftershocks of Monday’s debate, stressing that he is, after all, a Washington outsider with no political experience—a plus, in the minds of many voters looking for change, even if the same factors give pause to undecided voters still uneasy with his bombastic style and his relative inexperience.
Still, Trump’s frequent non sequiters and rapid-fire directional changes may have worked to his distinct disadvantage: several recent polls show that the race has tightened again to within the margin of error, but with Clinton still maintaining a slight edge in four or five of the most important swing states. Trump probably did little damage to his wider following, just as Clinton merely served to burnish her support from among traditional Democrats. But Trump’s debate performance did little to reassure uneasy traditional Republicans, and did even less to attract the votes of independent and non-aligned voters. This may prove a windfall for the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, who are now actively courting disaffected Republicans and the politically non-aligned.
Trump may have used the debate to sharpen what will surely become one of central talking points for the remaining six weeks of the campaign: that Clinton is a consummate professional politician with a long record of wasted opportunities and broken promises. Clinton and her surrogates surely believe that they won the debate on points and by using every traditional unit of measure by modern debate standards—which is to say facts and scripted talking points. Several major media outlets organized focus groups and small groups to measure the impact of the candidates as the night progressed. The consensus: few people were moved either way.
Related Thursday Review articles:
Clinton’s Health Problems Now Mainstream Issue; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; September 12, 2016.
Will Presidential Debates IncludeThird Party Candidate?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 5, 2016.