Rapid Reaction: Presidential Debate Number 1

Bob Shire

These candidates appear to get their information from entirely different worlds. Both suffer from being influenced by the echo chambers of their portions of the political spectrum and the day-to-day campaign arguments consumed and proffered by their staff. The fact checkers have been busy tonight. The debate also went very quickly, despite running long, as these candidates clearly had bottled up a lot of things to say to one another.

Both candidates showed their weaknesses. Donald Trump was vague, incongruous, and not particularly well-versed in policy specifics. Hillary Clinton gave long answers, acted aloof, and did not offer a compelling core vision for the country. Long answers should not necessarily be a problem, and Mr. Trump had a fair number of long answers as well, but she did not exhibit the passion and frustration that Mr. Trump displayed. However, Mr. Trump rambled, fought with the moderators, and doubled-down on some particularly unpopular points; these tactics may have helped him in the primary debates, but will not likely help him in the general.

 

While some of the touting by the Clinton campaign of unfair expectations was excessive, Mrs. Clinton has much more experience with these debates and has been involved in public policy issues for a much longer time. She was expected to be polished and knowledgeable, and she was. She did, however, have some off-the-cuff remarks, such as calling Mr. Trump’s comments crazy or living in an alternate reality, that were unbecoming and did not reach the people who find some of Mr. Trump’s message appealing. She seemed to take too much joy in some of Mr. Trump’s stumbles and rambling, and she caricatured him on stage. These actions, while those in many parts of the Clinton world and the echo chambers of the political left may consider them completely justified, do not resonate well and reinforce the image of her as elite and condescending. Being condescending to Mr. Trump may have been her intent, but being condescending to him does not help one win potential voters who find some appeal in Mr. Trump’s message. It also does not help dispel the image of Mrs. Clinton the Trump campaign has been trying to forward.

 

Mr. Trump was similarly unbecoming, was undisciplined, and did not prove he was presidential material in the traditional sense. He and Mrs. Clinton tried to get under each other’s skins consistently, and it more visibly impacted Mr. Trump. He was on the defensive, made some arguments which are not well-supported, and did not back down from tenuous assertions. His comments on stop and frisk, as well as his critique of Mrs. Clinton’s stamina, will not likely resonate with key constituencies he has been failing to attract thus far. His comments regarding the African-American community show efforts at outreach, but as with other identified issues, his policy solutions appeared limited beyond identifying the need to fix certain problems. His strongest moments were when he attacked Mrs. Clinton for being part of the status quo. His weakest were when he gave himself credit for not insulting or hurting other people, or engaging in illegal activities, over the course of a building project or a political debate. Giving yourself credit for rising to meet the standards expected of everyone else is far from a ringing endorsement.