Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The First 2016 Presidential Debate

I watched the US Presidential Debate last night.
In most election years, I don't bother watching the debates. We already know what the candidates' positions are, since they've been all over the news for the last year or more. The only real question is whether one or the other of the candidates will stumble over a question, or come up with some kind of cutting remark. Do we really want to be basing our votes on who can come up with the better insults or comebacks? Pretty sure that's not how I want our nation's leader representing me in domestic matters and international diplomacy.

Nonetheless, I was honestly curious about what was going to happen this year since the two sides are so far apart. Trump is nothing like any presidential candidate we've ever had before. Clinton is the stereotypical political insider (except for being a woman, which is new). I knew going in that nothing said was going to change my vote - I've pretty much already decided on Clinton, for reasons I laid out back in primary season - so I tried to leave aside whether I agreed with what was being said and instead focus on how each candidate handled the process.

Things went pretty well for both parties in the first half-hour or so. Both more or less stuck to the time they were given, without a lot of interruptions and staying mostly on topic. Trump had some sort of problem with the sniffles, and Clinton came across as a bit wooden, but those were pretty minor things.

The tone changed pretty quickly as the debate moved along, though. Clinton made a few points that seemed to really upset Trump: about his taking advantage of the housing crisis in 2008, how little federal tax he paid, that he called climate change a hoax, his support of the war in Iraq. (According to the NPR fact check, all of those had some basis in fact, though she exaggerated at least the tax claim.) He interrupted her several times and flatly denied some of the points, though the fact check found evidence otherwise.

Through the remaining hour, Trump sounded more emotional and less measured. Several times, he seemed to forget that he was debating and instead went into a stump-speech style. It sounded like he was preaching to a supportive crowd and was waiting for the applause. Instead, he got a response from Clinton or moderator Lester Holt, often calling into question whatever he just said. Sometimes, that put him on the defensive; other times, he'd try to counterattack the point. Either way, it didn't seem like he was prepared for argument.

Clinton, on the other hand, seemed prepared for just about every topic. Even when the subject of her private email server was brought up, she had her response ready - admitted it had been a mistake and moved onto other topics. She seemed to always have a counter-point ready for whatever Trump brought up. And she stayed quiet when Trump was floundering. The exchange on Trump's support of the "birther" movement was a particularly good example of that.

I'd like to compliment Lester Holt on his performance as the moderator. He did his best to rein in both candidates when they went over time or off topic. Not that it always worked - they are politicians, going on at length and avoiding topics is what they do - but he made a good effort. I think he did call out Trump more often than Clinton, which is to be expected since Trump made more obviously false claims. I'm sure he'll be attacked for that from some quarters, but in my book that's good moderating.

In the end, I doubt the debate changed the mind of anyone who already had an opinion. We didn't learn anything new about either candidate: Trump plays fast and loose with the facts, appeals to emotion, and promises radical change; Clinton is more measured, less exciting, and unlikely to significantly alter the status quo. The question is whether the undecided voters out there were influenced by Clinton's better preparation and handling of the debate format, or if they will overlook that in favor of Trump's promise of major changes regardless of the possible consequences. With two more debates to go, the answer may be that fence-sitters will be staying right in the middle for a while yet.


  1. While I'm certainly not a fan of Trump I did notice that a lot of the "gotcha" questions from Lester were directed towards him rather than Clinton, and Clinton got off a little light for things like the email scandal (mostly Trump's thought for not pouncing on it). I wonder if this is the tax that Trump has to pay for his free publicity for being so outspoken.

    His campaign has concerned me, not only because of it's content, but also because it's taught a lesson that you no publicity is bad publicity. I doubt he will win, but the damage has been done. Where several would be politicians jumped on the "tea party" band wagon years ago, the next political cycle will likely have candidates on both sides going full on circus mode.

    It's not something i'm looking forwards to.

    1. Yep, I agree about the circus, much as I hate to say it. I think it's the natural evolution of the 24-hour news cycle. We've been trained to expect something new and shocking on a constant basis, and the candidates are giving it to us.