A Tale of Two Debates
Eric Lendrum, 2016 Elections Contributor
It was almost surreal to finally watch perhaps the most highly-anticipated political debate in the last 100 years. There were so many ways it could have gone: A Trump landslide, reminiscent of the first debate between Obama and Romney; a complete knockout for Hillary as Trump implodes with a dumb comment; or perhaps a near tie decided at the very end, like the Reagan v. Carter debate.
But what we ultimately got was indeed an unusual outcome. In my honest opinion, the most accurate summary is that the two halves of the debate were like two entirely separate pictures. The first half was definitely won by Trump from the opening statements onward. While Clinton’s opening statement was the broadest and most generic one possible – with all kinds of buzz phrases from “good jobs” and “affordable” child care to “fairness” for all Americans – Trump gave a very specific and on-message opening statement with specifics on the issue of free trade and fixing the American economy by reigning in such trade deals, while also touching on other subjects and presenting very clear stances.
He went after her hard on emails, foreign policy, her stances on free trade, and best of all, a broad attack on the political class as personified by Hillary Clinton. His phrase of the night was undoubtedly “Political hacks.” He took a page straight out of Chris Christie’s playbook in the primary debates and rightfully called out her obviously-rehearsed answers as all talk and no action. He especially doubled down on how such “all talk and no action” rhetoric has seen the African-American communities in inner cities treated as political commodities for their votes, and then left to dry for the next four years. It was direct and very powerful. All the while, Hillary’s responses were barely cohesive, often a mixture of laughs and smiles of disbelief, repeatedly crying for the “fact-checkers” to get to work (only Candy Crowley wasn’t there to help her; too bad for her), and extremely pathetic responses such as “That is…just not accurate.” He had her up against the ropes on her own record and so obviously dodging the accusations that any average viewer could see her evading like a typical politician. It was perfect for Trump.
And best of all, he was very presidential indeed. Sure, he did interrupt Hillary a few times to interject facts or his side of the story, but often did so in just a few words. By contrast, he also quickly shut down both Hillary and moderator Lester Holt every time they dared to interrupt him. Thus, he easily asserted his dominance in a manner that was just right, without overdoing it or being too aggressive. He also went out of his way on three separate occasions throughout the debate to admit to when he agreed with Hillary on a certain issue. That’s three more than the amount of times Hillary admitted to agreeing with him. It definitely made him come across as the bigger person.
Then, around the 40-minute mark or so, he finally started to lose his cool. It was interesting because, as far as the substance went, nothing changed: Just as in the first half, Hillary still mostly just stuck to petty personal attacks against Trump while barely defending her own record, and it was Trump who stayed on policy and attacked her specific record. But in the second half, she merely ramped up the personal attacks, starting with (surprise) his tax returns…with help from the moderator. This was when Trump started to more vigorously and repeatedly interrupt her, to the point where even I thought he was overdoing it. He stopped with another sip of water, at long last, but that was the turning point.
She then proceeded to attack him as much as possible, on such pathetic non-issues as a supposed case of anti-black discrimination in 1972, to the point where he was the one rambling off explanations and justifications in defense of himself. As Greg Gutfeld pointed out, Hillary had turned it on Trump so that he was the one rambling to explain himself, and with the split-screen image of Hillary smiling and laughing as he does it, it was a powerful visual message indeed. Sure, just like Joe Biden in the 2012 vice-presidential debate, it was extremely immature and un-presidential for her to constantly act like this, but it still ultimately came across as more dominant in the dirtiest, mud-fighting sense (unfortunately).
Also in the second half, Trump suddenly began to decline in the quality and intensity of his attacks on her. At this point, he started “burying the lead;” essentially, he would attack Hillary on a certain subject, she would respond without acknowledging said attack…and he would let her get away with it. First, it was the birther issue. He correctly brought up how it was HER primary campaign in 2008 against Obama that first brought the birther issue to light, and even named one of her close confidants Sidney Blumenthal as directly responsible. She then responded by turning it right back on Trump and openly calling it a “racist” accusation on his part, without once acknowledging the claim that her campaign brought it up. And I watched in amazement as Trump let that die out. He did NOT hammer her on the fact that she started it, even though it was literally a perfect opportunity to take the moral high ground.
He did the same thing on her infamous “super predators” comment. He brought it up, she ignored it, and he let her get away with it. He was planting the seeds, but not pouring water on them. And with the casual viewing audience in America, you have to lay out your attack as clear as day. You can’t expect them to actually follow up on Google or realize it for themselves – you must explicitly explain your attack from start to finish. So for Trump to let these two slide AFTER he brought them up was heartbreaking.
And then he started leaving out attacks entirely that were RIPE for usage. First, when Hillary was preaching about how Trump dared to suggest that friendly nations such as Japan and South Korea should have nuclear weapons, and even threw in how cozy Trump seemed to be with Vladimir Putin, Trump had a golden opportunity to mention how Clinton, as Secretary of State, sold roughly 20% of U.S. uranium to Putin, in a total act of hypocrisy and downright recklessness.
Then, what I thought was about to be the most powerful moment, at the very end of the debate, setting up for the PERFECT “mic drop” moment…when Hillary regurgitated Megyn Kelly’s talking points about Trump’s comments towards women. Trump began his response, already talking over the moderator, saying that he “didn’t want to have to do this,” because what he was going to say was “so nasty and so personal”…I thought for sure he was going to counter-punch and go straight for the jugular. I thought he was going to bring up Bill’s liaisons, and all the women who have accused him of sexual assault or rape over the years, and how Hillary has so blatantly dismissed, ridiculed, and even intimidated these women, in a blatant act of hypocrisy against her so-called “support” of women’s rights. And how, through all this, she dared to call Trump a sexist? I thought it would’ve been a knockout blow, but he instead went off on some tangent about how she was spending hundreds of millions in attack ads on him. Really? That’s it? A tactic that MANY presidential candidates use is your big counter-punch?
A couple more points before my overall conclusion – which you may find shocking given the current status of this review.
First, I thought a very brief but strong aspect of this debate was how Trump went full-on Richard Nixon in his attack on the media. It wasn’t just as simple as him asserting dominance over the obviously-biased Lester Holt. At one point, he threw out a very powerful jab at the New York Times, joking about how they had published a positive piece on him the other day, which he said was rare. Then, the Nixonian line of the night, when he said something to the effect of “There is no stronger campaigner for Hillary Clinton than the mainstream media.” Exactly what his base wanted to hear, and indeed a line that can only solidify his anti-establishment message that combines the media and the political elite into a broad ruling class.
Second, I thought it was very strong for Trump to bring up Bernie Sanders one final time. To bring up the unfair treatment of her primary opponent conveyed his willingness for bipartisanship, and was one more subtle appeal to disgruntled Bernouts who may be tired of the political system. I think it would’ve helped his case even more if he mentioned Bernie’s name when attacking her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to again convey a bipartisan stance against Hillary.
Lastly, I loved that he was the first to bring up the “temperament” issue. By bringing it up and turning it into a positive before either Hillary or Holt could bring it up as an attack, he was able to frame the debate and lead on that issue right out of the gate. A brilliant rhetorical move.
Now, my conclusion. As I said at the start, I think Trump definitely won the first half of the debate without question. He was specific on problems and solutions, firmly in control of the situation, kept Hillary on defense while also defending himself when necessary, and he came across as presidential in his calm and collected, but tough, demeanor. The second half was a near reversal, where it was Hillary who maintained the calmer demeanor as she openly laughed at Trump. She still stuck to mostly petty personal attacks while he stayed on substance, but it didn’t matter – she came across as in charge in the second half.
But I believe that, because Trump monopolized the first half of the debate, he won the night. Because, as Adam Baldwin pointed out, casual viewers – who probably made up a vast majority of the viewership tonight – only care about the first half or so, if not the first 30 minutes. With anything, from a movie, to a TV episode, to even just a sentence, humans already place more significance on the first half or so than the second half. So you’d better believe that with 90 straight minutes of two candidates arguing, with no commercials at all, most of the viewership has checked out by the 30-minute mark, and DEFINITELY by the 40 or 45-minute mark. They’re tired by that point, they don’t care as much. And Trump dominated the first half without question. Thus, he won the night, as a vast majority of online polls, from sources such as Time magazine, the Drudge Report, and Slate.com, have proven.
I grade Trump’s performance in the first half as a solid A, and Hillary as roughly a C. In the second half, Trump fell to about a B- and Hillary rose to about a B+. So overall, I give Trump’s performance a solid B+. Hillary gets a B-. It was close in the grand scheme of the overall debate, but again, the first half is all that mattered. So Trump won the night. Expect his poll numbers to rise.
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