The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last Monday night was highly anticipated and watched by a very large number of viewers. Many commentators have already weighed in with their opinions about how things went for the participants and what impact the event might have, but I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own.
After any political debate, I suppose that it’s understandable for people to want to discuss who “won,’ since we tend to focus on so many things as competitions and the eventual election will have a victor. Determining the “winner” of a debate is not necessarily a straightforward proposition for multiple reasons. Sometimes both candidates might objectively perform at about the same level, and supporters of each side will almost always claim that their guy or girl won, no matter what happened. Different observers also will use a variety of criteria to judge debate performances, as well. Unfortunately, it seems to me that an evaluation of which candidate had the most memorable line or two, especially if it is critical of the opponent, often gets the most attention in deeming who had the most successful evening. It would be nice if debates could be seen predominantly as forums for the candidates to inform potential voters about their views on the issues instead, so that the person doing the best job of articulating sound policies would get the most credit, but that doesn’t seem likely to be the case anytime soon.
Ever since Donald Trump appeared in the first Republican primary debate, I’ve thought that his performances in these proceedings have continually shown that he does not belong anywhere near an important elected office, and last Monday’s showing was no different. Obviously, many people disagree, or Trump wouldn’t be the Republican nominee and be competitive in general election polling. Trump and his supporters have predictably, if not particularly rationally, claimed that he was the clear winner of his debate with Hillary, and even some who don’t share that belief have said they thought Trump may have won the early portion of the debate. I wouldn’t say that, but I will agree that things went somewhat better for Trump early in the evening, as he was more able to stay in control and stick to his own preferred themes. Even then, though, he was basically reiterating his stock complaints about the evils of trade deals and the lack of American “winning,” without sharing any specifics about his plans to make things better. This did nothing to persuade me that Donald Trump should be President, but I expected that his fans and perhaps some potential supporters would appreciate his talk about the problems he sees in the country and his characterization of Hillary Clinton as part of the political class that has failed to solve them for a very long time. In fact, I rather think that many would consider pretty perfect a debate in which Trump devoted all of his speaking time entirely to criticizing and insulting Clinton, Democrats, politicians in general, and other countries, but I’d prefer more concentration on substance from everyone involved.
As for Hillary Clinton, overall I thought that she acquitted herself well in Monday’s debate. Especially after the first segment, where Trump had her on the defensive while attacking her for now agreeing with him about opposition to the TPP trade deal, she seemed to do a good job of remaining calm and focussed. Clinton didn’t appear rattled or angry as Trump spent most of his time sending criticism and far-reaching blame her way, either personally or as some generalized representative of everyone who’s ever been part of the government. She even joked about the way it seemed he’d blame her for everything that’s ever happened by the end of the night, and with the way Trump kept expanding the list of Hillary’s alleged failings, I really wouldn’t have been all that surprised had he eventually gotten around to accusing Clinton of causing the Great Depression, the Civil War, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. So, I found her quip quite apt, but I would offer a couple of pieces of constructive advice. While ignoring most of Trump’s attacks and sticking to her own points may well be a good idea generally, I do think that Clinton should be prepared to counter at least some of the criticisms clearly and briefly before continuing on to make her own case. Also, while some of her die-hard supporters may think otherwise, I really don’t think it’s a good idea for Hillary to point to her lengthy testimony at the Congressional hearings on Benghazi as a demonstration of her stamina. It’s probably best for her if voters think about that topic as little as possible.
Throughout the debate, Donald Trump often avoided responding to the specific questions he was asked and seemed willing to offer only vague general goals or criticisms of those who’ve been in power rather than providing details of the way he proposes to Make America Great Again. While I wouldn’t agree with many of the policy proposals Hillary Clinton discussed on Monday, I do give her credit for making much more of an attempt than Donald Trump to actually answer the questions posed by the moderator and to tell the voters how she would intend to address matters should she be elected. Of course, she also brought up a few side issues about Trump’s tax returns, business practices, and past insulting comments regarding women that he, notably, felt the need to defend rather than either ignore or deny. Asserting that looking to make money on a housing crash is good business and that not paying taxes demonstrations smartness would almost certainly do serious harm to any other presidential candidate, but in Trump’s case, it’s entirely possible the public will either overlook these things or agree with Trump that they are points in his favor. We’ll have to see.
Even when he was discussing issues, Donald Trump reinforced some of my concerns about him, as he once again talked about addressing the job situation by not letting companies leave and minimized the importance of our alliances with NATO and other countries. Are we to believe that a Trump administration would protect the Constitution and freedom and make us safer by forcing businesses to do the president’s bidding and weakening our relationships with other nations? I thought that one of Hillary Clinton’s strongest moments in the debate came when she made it a point to reassure our allies that the U.S. will uphold it’s international commitments, and this helped her to come across as a reasonable and plausible world leader.
In the end, I definitely thought that Hillary Clinton had a stronger showing in the debate by demonstrating both more command of substance and policy and an ability to maintain a calm demeanor under pressure. Yet, Trump’s supporters have pretty consistently shown that they will stick with him no matter what, especially if they see him as fighting against the “establishment” of both parties and the media. So, while I thought that Trump’s rambling, repetitive, and evasive answers, liberally peppered with boasting about his businesses and endorsements, added up to a pretty terrible performance, this may well not hurt him in the polls. Actually, considering the success he had in the Republican primaries following a string of similarly awful debates, perhaps the voters will now be clamoring to crown Trump King for Life with near universal acclaim. Sigh... The only positive thing that I can say about the presidential election at this point is that at least it’s almost over...