The First Presidential Debate, 2016

The first of three United States presidential debates (September 26, 2016) between the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, was noteworthy in several respects. Frank exchanges are to be expected on these occasions, but this debate had the unique stamp of Donald Trump. He was aggressive and impetuous – qualities which have long been Trump’s hallmark. Facts do not matter for him, and this was seen again last night. Hillary Clinton came well prepared. She denied some of her opponent’s claims, and pointed her audience to FactCheck.Org to verify other assertions.

Donald Trump’s best moments came and went in the first 40 minutes. His most effective attack concerned globalization and the loss of American jobs to Mexico, China and other low-wage economies. During his eight years as president in the 1990s, the expansion of America’s markets was high on Bill Clinton’s agenda. Trump began, then repeatedly accused her for wrecking the US economy, but had few facts or statistics to press home the point. President Barack Obama, in whose administration Hillary was secretary of state for four years, took significant steps to protect the US auto and banking sectors from collapse. No acknowledgement of that. He is usually full of himself, at one point asserting that he has a superior temperament than Hillary Clinton.

Trump counter-attacked every time his own record came under scrutiny. Why had he not released his tax returns so far? Trump replied that he would release them when Hillary Clinton published her thirty-three thousand deleted e-mails. And he tried to explain the retreat from his accusations about where President Obama was born to the acceptance that Obama was American by birth asserting that he had forced the president to produce his birth certificate. Trump took credit for it. He is usually full of himself, at one point asserting that he has a superior temperament than Hillary Clinton.

All politicians use spin. The first debate showed that Hillary Clinton was well prepared, had mastery over facts and her answers were nuanced. Trump was blunt and pandering to prejudices. Against available facts, he spoke of “gangs of illegal immigrants with guns” roaming America’s inner-cities. So he promised that as president he would make sure that “law and order” were maintained. Towards the end, the debate switched to security. Trump was exhausted by then, his answers becoming increasingly incoherent.

Most commentators, including conservative analysts, were of the view that Hillary Clinton won the first debate. Will it change voting intentions? For fervent Trump backers, “No” is the answer. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s support is likely to become more firm. As for uncommitted, including those reluctant to support Clinton, there are two more debates to help them make up their minds.

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