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The First Presidential Debate

Ross Douthat’s assessment [1] of last night’s debate [2] makes sense:

So she won the debate on points, and probably won it in the court of public opinion, and in the process eased liberal anxiety and pushed the race back toward its “Hillary by four” equilibrium.

What she didn’t do, however, was goad Trump into a true meltdown or knock him out with a truly devastating attack.

If the goal for both candidates was to avoid self-inflicted wounds [3], Clinton certainly had the better showing. Trump showed how easily he could be baited and distracted by criticism, and even when he was gesturing in the direction of talking about policy he fell back on many of his worst arguments (e.g., “take the oil,” inane complaints about the nuclear deal, etc.). As I recall, the only attack on Clinton that really landed was when he hit her on her cynical maneuvering on TPP, and that attack worked because it happened to be true and reminded voters why Clinton isn’t trustworthy, but the vast majority of Americans don’t know or care about TPP and so the effect of this attack will likely be minimal.

Remarkably, Trump mostly failed to use Clinton’s foreign policy record against her, and he spent more of his time having to clarify or defend his own “positions” with little success. He mentioned the Libyan war only in passing, but never even tried to explain why Clinton was responsible for any of it. Clinton was able to deflect this by pointing out that Trump backed intervention in Libya, and that was the end of it. Foreign policy is one of Clinton’s biggest liabilities and one of the most obvious ways to question her judgment, but Trump isn’t prepared enough to talk about policy to use it against her. Clinton also avoided having to say very much about her position on what should be done in Syria. The candidates were never asked about it, and she mentioned the country briefly as part of an answer about the war on ISIS. Overall, the foreign policy section of the debate touched on only a handful of issues, most of which were related to U.S. policies in the Near East. If anyone wanted to know about something other than the candidates’ views on Iran and Russia, last night’s debate wouldn’t have provided many answers.

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36 Comments To "The First Presidential Debate"

#1 Comment By connecticut farmer On September 27, 2016 @ 9:59 am

Clinton was never questioned on her support of the no-fly zones in Syria. And on that note, it was amusing to hear her talk about the danger posed by nuclear weapons absent any questions about her combativeness towards Putin, whose country has over seven thousand such weapons mounted upon missiles, many of which may be pointed towards the US.

#2 Comment By H.K. Anders On September 27, 2016 @ 10:04 am

I have seen a few other pundits make the case that Trump did not have a “meltdown” at the debate, and therefore did not damage himself as badly as he might have. I don’t know what this means.

If Trump’s debate performance was not a “meltdown,” what exactly would a meltdown have looked like? Trump was demonstrably ignorant on policy. He was unfocused. He was undisciplined. He was rude. He interrupted Clinton and Holt. He defended crude, dehumanizing insults toward Rosie O’Donnell. He sighed and grimaced, leaned and fidgeted almost the entire time he was on camera. His answers were in most cases incoherent. He seemed to admit and boast about not paying any federal income taxes. He lied over and over and over again.

And that was not a meltdown? What would he have had to do? Charge across the stage and tackle Clinton? Call her a “stupid c**t?” Literally, physically dissolve into a puddle of goo on stage?

For this entire campaign, Trump has benefited from absurdly low expectations. The belief that last night’s performance did not constitute a “meltdown” is only the latest example.

#3 Comment By Viriato On September 27, 2016 @ 10:18 am

“Overall, the foreign policy section of the debate touched on only a handful of issues, most of which were related to U.S. policies in the Near East. If anyone wanted to know about something other than the candidates’ views on Iran and Russia, last night’s debate wouldn’t have provided many answers.”

Correct. And the focus was really on Iran, which is Trump’s weakest area, in my opinion. The way the foreign policy segment of the debate was packaged allowed Hillary to come off as more of an expert on foreign policy, which should hardly be surprising, given her résumé. Unfortunately, Trump did not really get a chance that lay bare her horrific record. Hopefully, that will be different the next two debates. I still give Trump credit for driving home the point that for all Clinton’s experience, she left the world in much worse condition than she found it — and she did not find it in good condition (to put it kindly).

“He spent more of his time having to clarify or defend his own “positions” with little success.”

That’s true of the debate as a whole, but I’d say Trump had much more success defending his domestic policy positions than his foreign policy positions. Although I think Trump won the debate overall, I think the foreign policy segment was a draw… which is disappointing, given that it had the potential to be a yuuuge win for Trump.

#4 Comment By collin On September 27, 2016 @ 10:36 am

But isn’t one of the biggest problems of foreign policy, that Trump originally did support these wars. Admittingly most of his Iraq support seemed a little “Meh” with Howard Stern but he is not dealing with the issue here. (Notice HRC short to the point answer on the e-mail.) Trump campaigns both on avoiding Middle East wars and bombing the heck out of them at the same tiime.

Also, I wonder how many hear everything wrong with the last 30 years and remember Reagan and then Bush Sr. were President back then. Additionally, I wonder if people know Ronald Reagan campaigned on NAFTA in 1980 and signed free trade agreements with Canada (who probably took more manufacturing jobs during the 1990s than Mexico) during his Presidency. And it was Bush who signed the agreement which passed Congress during Clinton.

#5 Comment By Chris Chuba On September 27, 2016 @ 10:43 am

The questions on foreign policy were ‘Clinton friendly’
1. Lester Holt questioned Trump’s assertion that he had better judgment on Iraq because ‘he supported the invasion’ which invited Trump to go into his long defense of his stance. BTW even if Trump doesn’t have a tape to prove his assertion, he certainly turned against the war before most Republicans and Hillary Clinton did and I do recall the Sean hannity interviews.

2. Lester Holt asked about ‘Cyber Attacks’ which was an invitation into the ‘Trump is aligned with Putin against the U.S. meme’.
No wonder there was a perception that ‘Trump was on the defensive’.

Could he have performed better? Sure but I don’t like to do Monday Morning quarterbacking here. We are all sitting in our easy chairs after having time to think about these answers and we all have our pet responses.

#6 Comment By Kent On September 27, 2016 @ 10:46 am

Trump did fine during the first 10-15 minutes but then slowly and surely crumbled. H.K. Anders is right – Trump “sighed and grimaced, leaned and fidgeted almost the entire time he was on camera.” And why waste time on Rosie O’Donnell?!? Trump’s myopia and self-centeredness is distracting.

#7 Comment By Clint On September 27, 2016 @ 10:49 am

Robert Kagan,
“If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue,it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”

Trump can “Define” Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy, causing more Bernie People to fall off her sled

#8 Comment By Ken Hamilton On September 27, 2016 @ 10:54 am

This debate was a win for Clinton. And it wasn’t close. Trump showed himself to be the public policy buffoon that he is.

#9 Comment By reid On September 27, 2016 @ 11:07 am

H.K. Anders: Indeed. Contrast the treatment Trump receives vs. Gore’s sighing and Governor Dean’s “Yee-ha!”, both of which were devastating to their campaigns for some reason. Maybe for 2020 the GOP will nominate an actual ape, and the ape will do well in the debate because it refrains from flinging feces.

#10 Comment By Captain P On September 27, 2016 @ 11:10 am

It was interesting to find out that the media think its more important to spend ten minutes about the legal ramifications of releasing tax returns than the war on Yemen, no-fly zones in Syria, arming Ukraine, immigration plans, or reducing the federal debt.

#11 Comment By Rossbach On September 27, 2016 @ 11:55 am

All that this debate really emphasized is that the controlled media will do anything and everything possible to help Hillary.

#12 Comment By shecky On September 27, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

In order for Trump to have effectively called out Clinton on her foreign policy, Trump would have to have endorsed a coherent and consistent policy himself. Which, of course, he hasn’t done. So it would be, at best, a draw on this point. And Clinton could mitigate by expressing a “change of heart, after weighing the choices” kind of move. Which is reasonable and fair. And yet again, Trump can’t overcome this move because he seems incapable of admitting error or even changing opinion, simply lying about his past stances, as he did several times in the debate on various issues.

#13 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On September 27, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

add me to the H.K. Anders for President team – with Shecky for VP. if the election were an “at bat” Trump is down in the count (0-2). his inability to make contact on any Foreign Policy pitches and is inability to “look Presidential” (Rosie O’Donnell “deserved” his abuse?) in terms of the interruptions, body language, and 3rd grade playground “woe is me” sensibilities; are both “self inflicted” wounds. depressing and amusing at the same time. equally amusing (in a depressing way) was watching his surrogates and “team” futilely try to make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t.

#14 Comment By Myron Hudson On September 27, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

“Foreign policy is one of Clinton’s biggest liabilities and one of the most obvious ways to question her judgment, but Trump isn’t prepared enough to talk about policy to use it against her.”

That’s just it. He isn’t prepared. That’s been painfully obvious all along. At this point it appears that he never will be; it’s not part of how he works. I just cannot accept that from an executive.

#15 Comment By WAB On September 27, 2016 @ 1:38 pm

“What she didn’t do, however, was goad Trump into a true meltdown or knock him out with a truly devastating attack.”

Looked like a meltdown from where I was sitting. But then Trump gets graded on a curve.

“…the only attack on Clinton that really landed was when he hit her on her cynical maneuvering on TPP, and that attack worked because it happened to be true and reminded voters why Clinton isn’t trustworthy.”

True. She’s vulnerable on that. But no one is so naive as to believe that all politicians don’t use a political calculus in determining which policies to support or back off on. To draw a straight line from her switch on TPP to untrustworthiness pretty much cripples every politician including Lincoln from the pantheon of trustworthiness.

#16 Comment By consistent hobgoblin On September 27, 2016 @ 1:38 pm

“In order for Trump to have effectively called out Clinton on her foreign policy, Trump would have to have endorsed a coherent and consistent policy himself. “

No. HRC is the moral equivalent of a drunk driver. All Trump had to do was describe the flaming wreckage she left behind her. Her tenure at State was literally catastrophic. That he was unable to do that coherently is almost incredible.

#17 Comment By max skinner On September 27, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

Trump is the wrong messenger to make any case against Clinton’s foreign policy.

#18 Comment By KevinS On September 27, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

“Maybe for 2020 the GOP will nominate an actual ape, and the ape will do well in the debate because it refrains from flinging feces.”

Reid wins the award for comment of the day!

#19 Comment By CharleyCarp On September 27, 2016 @ 5:46 pm

There’s no such thing as a knockout punch in this kind of thing, and knocking Clinton for not delivering it is just an expectations game.

None of the Republican candidates — except *maybe* Sen. Paul — could have credibly raised Clinton’s foreign policy issues because, as Danial has been pointing out for years, the standard Republican critique has been that Obama (and Clinton) haven’t been aggressive enough. Trump makes both arguments, just as he does with the Fed.

#20 Comment By cecelia On September 27, 2016 @ 5:46 pm

By any standard to which we have held presidential candidates Trump was a complete disaster – beyond meltdown. That people do not see this goes to the issue of a different standard being applied to Trump – which is not acceptable. He still has to do the job so he has to be held to the same standard as any other candidate.

What was worrying to me was the absolute proof that he lacks the mental health or temperament to be President. Hillary baited him so easily – he went veering off course and into inane remarks that would have utterly disqualified any other presidential candidate about not paying taxes because he is “smart”, about fat people, about people being mean to him, Rosie O’Donnell ??? I could not believe it when he went into major meltdown with the “Rosie O’Donnell deserved it” comments. He fries people all the time and yet if someone criticizes him he goes into defcon 5 mode. There is something lacking in this man.

I am thinking of how Trump would fare with Putin – Merkel is afraid of dogs – Putin has a meeting with her with his dog. Imagine how he will play Trump. If Theresa May insults him (which is so easy) imagine the sort of things he’ll say about her and the damage that will do.

Then all the fidgeting, grimacing, smirking, sniffling. Bizarre. Today he runs around complaining about the Miss Universe contestant – is he nuts? Oh yes – and the microphones.

The most important 90 minutes of his campaign and he cannot even manage to master the sort of knowledge most posters here have?

He goes on CNN a few minutes after the debate and insists he did not say he was smart to not pay taxes – he just said this in front of million of TV viewers – yet minutes later he is lying about it on CNN.

There is so obviously something wrong with this man yet there are millions who want to put him into the White House. God help us.

And now of course the comments re: “but Hillary is…”. Hillary is your normal pol – with normal doses of corruption, disassembling and ego. Trump is a whole nother dimension.

I am reconciled to the fact that this election is not bringing us the candidate we need to address the challenges we face – so for 4 years I can accept a status quo type. Trump is not status quo and he is not positive change – he is a seriously deficient candidate.

#21 Comment By Gregory On September 27, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

Maybe for 2020 the GOP will nominate an actual ape, and the ape will do well in the debate because it refrains from flinging feces.

Now, now, we all know apes disagree more civilly than those two last night.

#22 Comment By sglover On September 27, 2016 @ 6:49 pm

Chris Chuba sez:

Could he have performed better? Sure but I don’t like to do Monday Morning quarterbacking here. We are all sitting in our easy chairs after having time to think about these answers and we all have our pet responses.

Ummmm…. Wha?!?! You mean through this entire, endless presidential campaign, for well over a year now, it never occurred to Trump that he’d have to face a challenge **exactly** like what he walked into last night?!?! He was surprised, he didn’t have time to prepare himself? Huh?

Maybe instead of puffing himself up as the Genius Tycoon he should pursue the slacker bloc. There are a lot more votes to be had by rallying slackers. Of course there’s a bit of an oxymoron there….

#23 Comment By Pick Your Poison On September 27, 2016 @ 6:56 pm

” Hillary is your normal pol – with normal doses of corruption, disassembling and ego. “

Normally corrupt pols do not in the course of their lifetimes go from basically nothing to possessing wealth exceeding that of the Bushes or Kennedys.

Normally deceitful pols aren’t called “congenital liars” on the op-ed page of the New York Times. As Hillary was as far back as the 1990s …

Normally egocentric pols don’t think they’re so high and mighty, so very, very special, that they’re entitled to spit on basic national security procedures regarding handling classified information. For their own convenience.

Hillary is highly abnormal in all those respects. It’s why she’s one of the most hated and distrusted politicians in US history – another abnormal trait.

She’s also abnormal in having already racked up a massive body count. By taking the mess Bush II left behind in the Middle East and turning it into a smoking ruin littered with civilian corpses, hemorrhaging refugees, and stoking terror attacks, she proved decisively that she can’t be trusted with the Presidency by any sane person.

#24 Comment By SF Bay On September 27, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

What Cecelia said. Can’t improve on that. Expect the part where Trump truly scares me. The level of unpredictability and lying, OMG.

#25 Comment By balconesfault On September 27, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

Trumps position on the Middle East is that we should have renegotiated the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq so we could have continued to keep a large deployment of US troops on the ground there, right? He was actively calling for the takeout of Quaddafi. He’s talked about defeating ISIS by taking Iraqi oil, which I’m pretty sure would require a substantial ongoing military presence to carry off, since I can’t see the Iraqi military being complicit in theft of their resources. And to him the Iranian deal shouldn’t have been signed, and he’d have our boats firing on the first Iranian vessels that gave our sailors a Bronx cheer.

To attack Hillary’s foreign policy would require a cogent understanding of foreign policy, and a record of not making comments that sound demonstrably WORSE than anything Hillary has said or supported. Trump’s the wrong candidate to pull that off … indeed, as CharleyCarp noted above, perhaps only Rand Paul would have the bona fides to outflank Clinton on that count without seeming a massive hypocrite.

#26 Comment By The Other Sands On September 27, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

Add me to the list of readers wondering what would constitute a “meltdown”. During his endless rambling “answer” about Sidney Blumenthal and Patti Solis Doyle and various people who interviewed him and dear-god-what-is-he-even-talking-about, I literally burst out laughing on the couch. He ended by taking a shot at a beauty queen and Rosie Odonnel. I don’t care if someone else brought it up, don’t take the bait.

To anyone who isn’t biased, he is an obvious and utter disaster.

#27 Comment By ‘Fess Up On September 27, 2016 @ 9:22 pm

So. Trump is rambling, dishonest, vulgar, reckless and ignorant. Clinton is incompetent, dishonest, corrupt, reckless, and has dangerously bad judgment.

Sounds like we ought to all vote third party, no? Anyone for Johnson or Stein? Or are you all going to stick to your guns, vote for Clinton or Trump, and destroy the country?

#28 Comment By C. Wingate On September 27, 2016 @ 10:58 pm

The most striking lapses from Trump were the several times that he basically bragged about gaming the system if not outright cheating. I imagine for a lot of unreflective Trump supporters those lines went right on by them but he basically characterized his way of dong business as being completely amoral.

#29 Comment By i’m melting On September 28, 2016 @ 2:20 am

“Add me to the list of readers wondering what would constitute a “meltdown”.”

Maybe something like what happened to Clinton at the 9/11 memorial?

#30 Comment By c matt On September 28, 2016 @ 11:11 am

First debate. It will be forgotten in a week. Trump is probably playing by the Obama 2012 handbook:

1st debate: look a bit unprepared, lose, but not enough to do serious damage

2nd Debate: Let opponent go in overconfident, go for jugular, look like the comeback kid

3rd Debate: Just don’t FU (probably a challenge for Trump).

#31 Comment By c matt On September 28, 2016 @ 11:16 am

Or are you all going to stick to your guns, vote for Clinton or Trump, and destroy the country?

Clinton or Trump will be the next pres. Country will be destroyed either way – the only exercise to perform is to figure out who is more likely to do more damage, then vote for the other guy. Given Clinton’s proven foreign policy belligerence, in particular against Russia, I don’t see how Trump could be more dangerous.

#32 Comment By beejeez On September 28, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

Oh, I can imagine it, c matt. How about trashing the Iran deal? Slaughtering innocents in the guise of ramping up attacks on Isis? Instigating trade wars? Turning loose the torture industry on not just suspected terrorists but their families? And that’s just the matters he’s pretty much promised will happen. God knows what he’ll do when (not if) his ego is provoked.

#33 Comment By Hobson’s Choice On September 28, 2016 @ 10:34 pm

@C. Wingate – “The most striking lapses from Trump were the several times that he basically bragged about gaming the system if not outright cheating.”

He’s been playing that up from the beginning, selling himself as the guy who knows how the corrupt system works and how to fix it because he himself played that game. In primary debates and stump speeches he repeatedly said quite openly that he was the guy who used to pay corrupt pols like the Clintons (and some of the GOP hopefuls on stage with him).

I got that about his pitch from the beginning.

I guess you have to decide whether he’s lying about putting that all behind him to try to fix the rigged system for the rest of us.

#34 Comment By JLF On September 29, 2016 @ 10:52 am

Fess Up @ 9:22 pm Points to the real problem with American democracy without explicitly describing it. One of the two unacceptable choices, Clinton or Trump, will become the president on January 20 . . . unless voters in enough states vote for a third party candidate in sufficient numbers to at least throw the decision into the House of Representatives . . . where the decision will unquestionably be for Trump . . . or where a third party candidate achieves the necessary 270 electoral votes necessary for election. There is no serious argument for how the latter scenario might take place.

A binary choice is baked into the constitutional cake. Single member congressional districts are all but mandated by Article I. No state legislature, being itself divided among the two major parties, will apportion its representatives among three or more competing party candidates, thereby diluting the power of those same parties. Not even the most “progressive” or “revolutionary” state in the country will surrender whatever leverage its state delegation has in Congress by being the first. Needless to say, any constitutional amendment is DOA inasmuch as it will diminish the existing power of these two major parties. And until the parties change at the congressional level, there is no chance for them to change at the presidential level.

There is one way to change the status quo, if not the party system itself, and it may be underway as we speak. Both parties are coalitions of interest groups, held together as much by opposition to the other party as by common interests. Currently the GOP appears most in danger of fragmenting, only the strong power of opposition to the Clinton holding it together. Any realignment that might follows offer a Trump loss offers a chance at reform, but only a chance. And my money is on the likelihood of just more of the same ole, same ole.

#35 Comment By Citizen E On September 29, 2016 @ 10:55 am

Trump’s largest problems were these:

The guy tells people he’s their voice and then does not prepare sufficiently (especially on an essential issue like nuclear strike protocols–yikes, if you really think about it) to do a decent job representing for his constituency. What a sniffler, he turned out to be on that account. Trump fans–that was your guy.

If Hillary Clinton can get under the guy’s skin, and she most certainly did over and over, then how can anyone expect for a President Trump to deal with truly nefarious scoundrels, like, say, Vladamir Putin, who has already conned the guy into thinking flamboyant, ah the faint praise gambit, means really smart?

His arguments when actually connecting to issues:
(1) lacked coherence. Not a meltdown? Okay then, the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes syndrome;
(2) were complaint oriented only. Anyone can do the glass half full with economic and social problems, but when asked for specific solutions, to say he lost his thread would be generous. Meanwhile even when folks said he was doing well, Mrs. Clinton was dropping specific program policies designed to catch the ears of constituencies, young people, especially, designed to attract Sanders voters who might still remain disaffected with her.
3. When the guy got to taxes, racial issues, and women’s interests, he became a buffoon, not only peddling untruths but revealing someone just this side of Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

And then, Amateur Hour,it was the microphone; Lester Holt was unfair; Hillary was mean; I won the debate, everyone says so–manly man or wuss, you make the call

#36 Comment By discriminations On September 29, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

“The guy tells people he’s their voice and then does not prepare sufficiently (especially on an essential issue like nuclear strike protocols”

The last thing I remember hearing from Hillary Clinton about nuclear strike protocols was her 2008 statement threat to “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel. Which cavalierly tossed out decades of carefully calibrated strategic ambiguity.

So it’s difficult to get too worked up about Trump’s stumbles re nukes. At least he didn’t offer to annihilate 75 million men, women and children in order to appease the nuttier pro-Israel types.

Come to that, in light of the Clinton Foundation pay-for-play revelations, do you really want someone who sells access to her office controlling the nuclear arsenal? I think not.

More generally, nearly every Trump fail (beyond his chronic violations of taste and manners) is a fail because it suggests a future fail if he doesn’t bone up and get on top of it. The problem for Clinton is that in case after case, the Trump fails don’t hurt him as one might expect because she already screwed up – in the real world as opposed to the world of political rhetoric – in the same general area. His screw-ups can be ascribed to the learning curve. Hers can only be ascribed to incompetence, bad judgment, or bad faith.