By Brian Klose
The 2016 election has been nothing short of one of the most polarizing and turbulent presidential races in recent history. Since the conclusion of the conventions this past summer, the intense campaign warfare between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump has laid the foundations for a much-anticipated debate season. With pre-debate polls giving Clinton a slight lead, the first presidential debate was slated to provide many opportunities for either candidate to cement or take the lead.
Last week’s inaugural debate, held at Hofstra Univeristy, proved to be a predominantly one-sided affair, favoring the composed Clinton over the flustered and seemingly–unprepared Trump. While both candidates rarely touched on specific plans or policies pulled from their party’s platforms, the atmosphere of the debate showcased two candidates with differing temperments and debate tactics, one relying on calculated reponses, the other relying on heated rhetorts.
The evening started out relatively tame. Host and moderator Lester Holt of NBC News introduced the debate as an exploration of three topics: “Achieving Prosperity, America’s Direction, and Securing America.” This immediately established a theme focused primarily on domestic issues, specifically economic rebirth and public safety, that would span the entire debate.
The first segment, “Achieving Prosperity,” centered around tackling job growth, income inequality, and overall positive economic welfare. Clinton was given the first word. She led her response by mentioning her granddaughter’s second birthday as a segway to her plans for America’s future, an attempt to humanize an otherwise prepared and structured introduction. Her opening focused on paying closer attention to small and innovative businesses. “I want us to invest in you,” Clinton said. “I want us to invest in your future. That means jobs in infrastructure, in advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, clean, renewable energy, and small business, because most of the new jobs will come from small business.”
Clinton addressed ways of tackling income inequality through raising the national minimum wage and enacting company profit-sharing, but failed to dive deep into how she planned to carry these methods out. In fact, many of Clinton’s proposed solutions failed to include any details, especially the tried and true statement of “having the wealthy pay their fair share and close the corporate loopholes.”
Regardless of her relativley safe opening statement, Clinton presented herself as a very stoic and presidential figure, clearly articulating her broad ideas with a steady and accessible pace.
Following Clinton’s opening remarks, the focus was handed over to Trump. Right out of the gate, Trump brought China and Mexico into the conversation. “Our jobs are fleeing the country,” Trump said. “They’re going to Mexico. They’re going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They’re devaluing their currency, and there’s nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight. And we have a winning fight. Because they’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing.”
Trump immediately placed any nationwide employment woes on foreign influence and undermined any American progress in relation to those countries.
Admittedly, and to my surprise, Trump’s opening statement contained considerabley more concrete and detailed plans towards his overall goals, giving specific numbers regarding his planned tax reductions for small and large businesses. Not the most revealing information, but more than Clinton initially revealed in her opening statements.
Trump’s tone was much more abrasive and aggressive than Clinton’s. He repeatedly got lost in his own words and stated numerous redundancies.
The opening statements from both candidates were easily the tamest portions of the debate. Clinton’s response to Trump’s opener drew the first attack, pointing to his privilaged upbringing as a wealthy businessman as an attempt to appeal to his working-class supporters. After Clinton’s response, Holt asked Trump to follow-up on his opening statement. Trump, however, chose to ignore the question and address and counterattack Clinton. This type of response would become typical for both candidates as the debate went on.
A notable quality of this debate was the awkward and uncomfortable tension between Clinton and Trump that mostly came in the forms of pandering and ingenuine compliments. The first example came from Trump during his plans for reforming international trade. “Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton – yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” This sort of forced care for each other quickly fell apart as both candidates talked over each other consistantly, leading to many unnecessarily chaotic moments. Trump especially lost his composure during many of Clinton’s responses, interjecting with such phrases as “That’s called business, by the way” and “That makes me smart,” both in response to claims over his questionable business practices.
There was incredible tension between Trump and Holt as well. Holt, who admittedly seemed to favor Clinton, repeatedly interrupted Trump during his rants. While some of the interruptions seemed pointed at times, Holt ultimately tried to keep both candidates within their given time limits.
Both candidates calmed down significantly as the debate shifted from jobs to race relations. Clinton was again given the first word on the issue, and primarily addressed race relations between African-Americans and the police. “We have to restore trust between communities and the police,” Clinton said. “We have to work to make sure that our police are using the best training, the best techniques, that they’re well prepared to use force only when necessary. Everyone should be respected by the law, and everyone should respect the law.” Her intial response to the topic was cautious. As she dove deeper into her thoughts on the matter, Clinton bluntly addressed the problem of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, a bold and unexpected phrase from the otherwise calcuated responses given so far.
Trump responded with a strong statement focusing on the implementation of law and order. “Well, first of all,” Trump said, “Secretary Clinton doesn’t want to use a couple of words, and that’s law and order. And we need law and order. If we don’t have it, we’re not going to have a country.” When talking about the problem of violence in minority communities, Trump relied on his near-encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago crime statistics and a focus on
stop and frisk police tactics.
This section of the debate contained considerably less interruptions and interjections from either candidate. Unfortunatley, the tension returned as the conversation shifted to international relations. When confronted about his thoughts on Clinton lacking a “presidential look,” Trump and Clinton gave one of the most memorable moments of the debate. When calling her “stamina” into question, Clinton said, “Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a Congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.” Clinton indulged herself in a well-said and extremely entertaining rhetort that arguably nailed down her deabte win.
Overall, both candidates showed less than favorable performances content-wise, revealing very little about their plans of action to a large audience. Most of their discourse focused on personal attacks and relied on pointing out each other’s misinformation rather than giving focused plans for the future of America. When judging their more technical debate performances, Clinton clearly showed more preparation and composure, keeping the interruptions to a minimum and doing her best to stay on course regarding the topics at hand. Trump showed very little composure, and relied heavily on presenting more quotable moments and more memorable gestures. As the candidates prepare for the next debate in early October, they must focus on giving clearer explanations of their platforms and maintaining a mature, presidential look. Either way, it will make for really great television.