The First Presidential Debate, a Week Later

Isaac Lunt, Johns Hopkins University:

On Monday, September 26, 2016 an estimated 84 million people tuned in to watch the first Presidential Debate between nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, making it the most-viewed Debate in history. The ultimate smack down, Clinton v. Trump: two charismatic candidates who aren’t shy about their dislike for each other sharing the biggest stage in the nation for the fist time. It was sure to be an instant classic.

The debate itself went about how I expected: insults were hurled, gaffes were made, points of substance were reduced to sound bites; The Donald lost his cool, Hillary laughed like a maniac. Relatively predictable.

In the days following the debate, commentary and analysis were plastered on the front pages of every major news outlet in America. It would seem, a week later, that there is nothing new to add. That’s probably fair, but there are three points I think are worth re-hashing: an affirmation, a pleasant surprise, and a major disappointment.

An Affirmation: Donald Trump is Unqualified  

Donald Trump has long been a repugnant spew-pit of abhorrent ideologies and flagrant fallacies. He has built his political career on inflammatory statements, from his fateful appearance on the scene as the champion of the “Birther Movement” to his meteoric rise-by-way-of-insult earlier this year; and in fact, his brash style of debate—which devastated candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich in the republican primary race—was probably the attraction that drove this debate’s viewership to such historic levels.

But something far more sinister than his deeply flawed character (“non-presidential temperament,” as Hillary might say) was on display on Monday night. When asked a question about how to improve race relations in the country, Donald Trump’s immediate response was to praise “Stop and Frisk,” a policy so entrenched in racial bias that it was found unconstitutional. He doubled-down (tripled-down? quadrupled-down?) on his anti-immigrant rhetoric by implying that many of the problems in the nation’s inner cities are caused by gangs of illegal, Mexican immigrants. At the tail end of the “Race-Relations” segment of the debate, Holt asked Trump if, in the spirit of repairing race-relations, the candidate had anything to say to those Americans who might have been affected by his spreading Birtherism. Before Holt got the question out of his mouth, Trump had already interrupted with, “I have nothing to say.”

Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump has used bigotry as a weapon: repeated calls for a wall on the southern boarder, plans for mass deportations, endorsement of a mandatory registration process for Muslim Americans reminiscent of Nazi Germany, a multiplicity of sexist remarks, and now, a strong affection for “Stop and Frisk.” I had hoped that this rhetoric would be confined to his rallies, where he is addressing only to his base, a sizable fraction of who are bigots themselves. But on Monday night, Donald Trump, in what is really his first national self-endorsement, stated in no uncertain terms that prejudice isn’t just a tool in his campaign, it would be the bedrock on which he would build his presidency.

A Pleasant Surprise: Hillary Clinton is Likable

I’m biased. I’m a lifetime liberal, a feminist, and I hate Donald Trump. But I certainly have my qualms with Hillary Clinton, and I was nervous that she would come off during Monday’s debate as she often has: aloof, rigid, and untrustworthy.

She didn’t. She was relaxed and prepared, she played her opponent’s weaknesses with poise, she laughed, she discussed policy, she displayed strength. To my eye, she looked very presidential, and extremely human. In the days following Monday, many were quick to point out that the debate was evocative of the inherent sexism women face daily: a boorish, profoundly unqualified man somehow being considered for the same job as a deeply experienced woman. It was hard not to feel for Secretary Clinton as she stood there, holding her tongue with stoic dignity as her opponent barraged her with insults, condescended to her, and attacked her character. I was proud of the way she responded and imbued with a newfound confidence that she can do the job she’s seeking.

A Major Disappointment: After the Debate

Polls are still coming, but it would appear that Clinton will benefit from a healthy bump of somewhere between 3 and 5 percentage points.

I re-watched the debate before writing this article, and combining the insights of that second watching with what I’ve learned from the post-event commentary, I have drawn some conclusions.

It has been argued that debates are important because they get people talking; that political discourse as an entity has merit outside of being a vehicle for real change. In some senses I agree with this. Politics are a discourse. This country was founded and continues to grow through debate. Face-to-face argument is the best way to acquaint the electorate with the personalities and policies of their representatives, and it encourages further political discussion.

But what are the real merits of debate in a political climate so deeply polarized that few really change their minds? This debate, for all its fanfare, won’t make any Trump supporters vote Clinton or vice versa. If historical trends hold, it is unlikely to sway the undecided electorate in any major direction, either. If these debates don’t really change anything, what is the point of having them? Ratings? Or can they have real utility?

I believe they can, and that’s why, on second watching of the debate, I was struck by how easily Clinton got off. Lester Holt pushed Donald Trump on everything, bringing up past gaffes, implicating him as bigoted, questioning his decision to withhold his tax returns, and on and on. I wouldn’t mind that at all—it’s wonderful to hold candidates accountable for their words and actions—if Hillary Clinton had been given appropriate scrutiny. Aside from one question about her emails—which was really presented more as an opportunity for her to clear the matter up than a serious probe—the only references to Clinton’s faults or questions about her sometimes-questionable past came from her opponent.

In one notable instance, minutes were spent on a back-and-forth between Trump and Holt regarding whether or not Trump supported the war in Iraq. But no mention was ever made of the fact that Clinton, while a Senator, voted for that war. Similarly, when she mentioned (in an offhand way) that her plan for combatting ISIS involves increased airstrikes, or when she, in the context of a question about cyber-security, sternly warned that the US would be willing to engage in new forms of warfare, her comments went unexamined.

Look, I like Hillary Clinton. She has been fighting the good fight for almost thirty years in the face of unprecedented adversity. I believe she would be an excellent candidate for President regardless of her opponent. But I have some serious reservations about her character—reservations I know I’m not alone in having—and those should be addressed in the Presidential Debates. Lester Holt didn’t ask her any difficult questions—and he had a plethora of options. Why would she support the Iraq war, for one? What does her support of that war say about her judgment? What does it imply about what she might do if a similar choice was brought before her as President? Outside of Iraq: why would a woman who has built her career on a purported support for the lower class accept “YUGE” speaking fees from Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs? Why would someone who claims to believe in transparency hide the fact that she’s suffering from pneumonia? Clinton’s character appears rife with these kinds of contradictions, and though I believe she possesses a strong moral compass, she doesn’t always seem to follow it.

So far in this campaign, Clinton has been allowed to define her morality as simply, “Not Trump’s.” That is not good enough. If these debates are to be a legitimate forum for political dialogue, Hillary needs to start answering some tough questions about her judgment and ethics.

Watching Monday night, one got the distinct impression that Hillary Clinton felt herself to be above the theatrics of the debate. She is, but the American people still deserve deeper explanations of who she is and why they should support her.

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