Introduction

The first presidential debate of 2016 did not disappoint. From rapid-fire exchanges to venomous barbs to serious differences in policy positions, there is much to unpack. In this feature, HPR writers examine the aspects of the debate that surprised them, things that didn't get enough coverage, and the broader implications of the debate for America's political discourse.

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HPRgument Posts | September 28, 2016 at 11:50 pm

Clinton Won, But it Doesn’t Matter

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If Monday’s debate were about policy, Hillary Clinton took the cake.

If the debate were about how to create more well-paying jobs for all Americans, Clinton went into detail about her plan to raise the minimum wage, encourage profit-sharing, mandate family leave, and make it easier to repay student loans. If it were about mitigating the effects of climate change, Clinton showed that she understood and took seriously the imperative of confronting this challenge, with proposals to build new solar panels and update our electrical grid. If it were about making the tax system more fair, Clinton explained that independent experts had shown that her tax plan would add less to the deficit and concentrate the burden on the wealthy.

In a normal year, and against a normal politician, Clinton’s in-depth, well thought out answers would have easily rendered her the victor. But this is not a normal year, and Trump is not a normal candidate.

His entire candidacy is based around not being a normal candidate. That’s why so many rules of the campaign— don’t insult veterans, don’t lump together all of the immigrants from a certain country as “rapists” and “criminals”, don’t suggest that your opponent be shot—don’t seem to apply to Trump. And that is why losing this debate probably won’t hurt him.

Pundits who quickly declared Clinton the winner of the debate were acting under the assumption that this debate was like any other, where the two candidates engage in an exchange of ideas and one is declared the victor. They ignored the depth of the anger driving Trump’s success in the polls. This anger is directed at macro-level forces like globalization and immigration, but also at the system that employs those very pundits, the system that allows a group of slick, media-savvy talking heads to spin the debate one way or another.

Trump’s status as an anti-media (or at least “mainstream media”) candidate in a campaign that is filtered through the lens of the media allows him and his supporters to write off any gaffes he makes as the media distorting the true meaning of his words. It doesn’t matter, then, that Trump lied when, in the debate, he denied saying that climate change was a hoax, or denied supporting the invasion of Iraq, or declared that New York’s stop-and-frisk policy was not unconstitutional, or claimed that Ford was planning to lay off thousands of Americans and move factories to Mexico. All of that can be written off to Lester Holt’s unfair questions and the media’s bias against Trump.

Many pointed to the differences between Trump and Clinton’s debate styles as further proof of Clinton’s victory. Trump was louder, more aggressive, and interrupted Clinton on 51 separate occasions. He even talked over Holt at times when pressed on issues like his tax returns and his complicity in the racist lie that President Obama was not born in the United States.

The spectacle of a man who was obviously not as well-versed on the issues interrupting an imminently qualified woman to tell her she was wrong is unfortunately familiar to many women who have experienced this in the workplace or in daily life. But to many Trump supporters, his tell-it-like-it-is attitude and willingness to stand up to members of the political establishment is precisely what draws them to him.

It was this strategy that drove his success in the Republican primary debates. While pundits decried his juvenile put-downs of opponents and his reference to the size of a certain part of his body, he dispatched his opponents one by one. While the first presidential debate was obviously on a bigger stage, there is no reason to believe Trump’s strategy won’t continue to pay dividends among his supporters.

The success of this strategy was evident in one of the few exchanges that most pundits gave to Trump: his attacks on Clinton’s support of free trade agreements like NAFTA—a flashpoint issue in this campaign. Trump railed against NAFTA, calling it “the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country”. Clinton insisted that manufacturing jobs still rose in the 1990s, which is true, but Trump continued to bludgeon her on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he said she supported until “you heard what I said about it and all of a sudden you were against it.”

“Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts,” Clinton responded. And while Clinton was right, it didn’t seem to matter.

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