Presidential Debate Showdown


Image courtesy of the New York Times.

Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump took to the stage September 26th in the first of three debates to present their message for the future of the country to the American people. The debate was moderated by NBC’s Lester Holt, who did an excellent job of pressing the candidates for specifics and holding them to the truth.

Hillary Clinton spent much of the night insisting that Trump answer for comments and decisions he has made, such as disparaging comments about a former-Miss Universe and not releasing his tax returns. Clinton generally did a good job of keeping the debate about Donald Trump, however on multiple occasions she was also pressed to answer for past decisions, most notably for her deleted emails. She admitted that she made a mistake and masterfully moved the conversation to a different topic.

Clinton opened the debate by stating that “the central question is what kind of country we want to build.” Trump followed by expressing his concern over jobs leaving the country for Mexico and China. His plan for preventing these jobs from leaving included lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%, which he reminded the audience was the “biggest tax cut since Reagan”. He also lambasted the bureaucratic red tape that was preventing companies from bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Clinton countered by asserting that Trump’s tax cuts would mostly help the wealthy and that the tax policies of Reagan were ineffective, saying “trickle down did not work”.

Then, the conversation moved to Trump’s tax returns. Trump repeated the statement that he would not release his tax returns while under audit by the IRS, despite the fact that the IRS has repeatedly assured him and the public that he is under no obligation to keep them private during the audit. The New York Times released a report on October 1st that discovered, from information in Trump’s 1995 tax returns, that Trump may not have payed taxes for 18 years.

Clinton subsequently went after Trump for reports that his frequent bankruptcy has hurt private contractors who worked on his casinos, saying he built his companies on the backs of the “little guy” and does not have the interests of working people at heart.

The topic of conversation then moved to race relations. Clinton said that in America, race is a significant challenge because, due to explicit and implicit bias, race determines too much. Trump repeated his campaign promise to restore “law and order” in a country that he claims is rife with crime. He also supported the stop-and-frisk policy under New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that was recently ruled to be unconstitutional, declaring that it was necessary to take guns away from illegal immigrants and other criminals.

Clinton rebutted with her vision of effective, community policing and the statistics that, since 1991, violent crime is down 50% and property crime is down 40%. She expressed regret, however, that in pursuit of reducing crime, so many people, especially young African Americans, have been jailed for nonviolent offenses. She expressed her support for more second chance programs, the end of mandatory minimums, and the end of private, for-profit, prisons. Clinton also voiced the need for better gun regulations, such as preventing those on the Terrorism Watch List from buying guns.

Trump, to some surprise, agreed that those on the FBI’s list should be unable to purchase firearms.

Next, Trump was asked about his role in the birther movement. He said nothing of substance on this issue despite the fact that he was the banner holder for the movement in the Republican Party that wanted President Obama to release his birth certificate to prove he was born in the United States, a movement that even some within the GOP have said has racially-based motivations.

Clinton created yet another line of attack on Trump, tying his activity with the birther movement to a Department of Justice suit in 1973 for racial discrimination in Trump’s New York real estate business. Trump responded by claiming that many New York firms had been targeted and denying that he had been discriminatory, something that is patently untrue.

The next section of the debate was on cyberwarfare. Clinton opened by asserting that cyber attacks were one of the big challenges of the future and that she was shocked when Trump “invited” Putin to attack America.

Trump referenced the email hack which demonstrated that the DNC had favored Clinton over Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. He also added that the decision of President Barack Obama and then-Secretary Clinton to get out of Iraq resulted in the creation of ISIS.

Clinton countered by bringing up Trump’s well-publicized lie, which occurred during an interview with Matt Lauer, in which Trump claimed to have opposed the Iraq War before the invasion, despite evidence to the contrary. Trump responded by claiming that he was telling the truth and that the public was being misled by a mainstream media lie. He also brought up his leeriness of the NATO alliance, saying that NATO countries did not pay their fair share and the alliance was obsolete because they did not take enough action against terrorism.

Clinton repudiated this with the fact that Article V (NATO’s mutual defense pact) was only activated once in the history of the alliance, and that was by the United States after 9/11. The NATO countries followed the US into the War in Afghanistan.

Next, the conversation gravitated to the Iran Deal. Clinton supported her actions in negotiating the deal and preventing Iran from creating a nuclear weapon. She reported that, while in the Senate, she had strongly pushed for the sanctioning of Iran, and even put together a coalition for further sanctions as Secretary of State. She said that the Obama administration was practicing diplomacy and had put a lid on the Iranian nuclear program.

Trump responded by claiming that the “[the United States] lose[s] on everything”. He did not give specifics on why the Iran Deal was a bad deal, but made it clear he felt very strongly that the Obama administration could have negotiated for a better deal.

Clinton then generalized the discussion, giving broad, powerful platitudes about foreign policy and leadership. She said that “words matter” and that America’s word in the world must be trusted. She called for the country to elect a “leader people can count on”.

Trump followed by saying that the US cannot be the police of the world. He neglected to answer a question about earlier statements that Clinton did not have the right “look” to be President, instead choosing to talk about her stamina.

When asked if they would support the will of the voters regardless of who won, Clinton said that she “support[s] our democracy”. Trump agreed that “if she wins I will absolutely support her”, although he has pulled back from that statement somewhat following the debate.

Over the course of the first debate, Clinton did an excellent job of fleshing out her policy positions and sticking Trump to past statements. Trump’s vague policy statements and frequent interruptions of Clinton did not help refute the reputation he has among some voters as an ill-tempered bully. Post-debate polls have reflected this; the model run by Nate Silver, a prominent, non-partisan statistician, estimates that Clinton’s chances of winning the election improved by 17 percentage points since the debate (as of October 3rd). The New York Times’ model saw an 8 percentage point bump for Clinton from the debates (as of October 3rd).

This debate set the stage for the following two. Members of Trump’s campaign advised him to prepare more efficiently for the following debates and adhere more to the content that was being asked of him. Clinton was generally stated as “winning the debate”, a belief that carried over into the last two debates.