First Debate Duel: Clinton Counters, Trump Stumbles
Americans are still sorting out the aftermath of the first major Presidential debate, and the takeaways are some odd combination of the predictable and the bemusing. Both sides managed to find their stride at varying points, but my feel was that while Trump managed a few well-placed jabs at varying moments – Clinton ultimately carried the night. I’ll attempt to sort through much of the varying topic matter (with so much substance to discuss and so much empty rhetoric provided about it – wherever will I stop???), but I’ll concede even in the introduction what defined Hillary’s command of the night for me. Trump felt like a candidate making his case to the American people. His focus was primarily on conservative voters with some intermingled independent outreach – fairly well the expected content. However, that conservative outreach and short-sightedness on immigration could well be a grave misstep. Hillary, on the other hand, felt like a candidate reaching out to both her nation and the world - *especially* in her closing and drawing upon the need of the international community to depend on an organized, proficient, and (above all) honorable America. This, for me, won her the night. Hillary asked, in essence, if we were a nation of isolationism or international presence – and Trump’s campaign message from day one has chosen the isolated, lonely path that leads to the tragic land of woes: walls, rejection, and self-delusion.
I expect Trump outperformed the expectations of non-supporters. I say that as an initial, accurate concession before proceeding to what seems more emblematic of the night: repeated missteps on his part. For example – consider Trump trying to call Clinton out by saying she’s been fighting ISIS her entire adult life. Those were his words. Given ISIS was a creation, by Trump’s own claims later in the debate, of the void of power in Iraq: it rattles the brain how Trump processes numbers. Does he imagine Hillary only reached adulthood in the mid or late 2000’s? To her credit, Clinton’s response was to nod and laugh for the fact checkers to tackle that question, but that fact checkers are even needed in this instance speaks volumes of where our grasp of international affairs and actual world events stands.
Trump’s unwillingness to release his tax records predictably came up, continuing the refrain of Trump’s lack of transparency. Indeed – Trump’s efforts in the debate seemed to follow the time honored Trump tradition of deflect, redirect, and pray something sticks. In fairness, though, Hillary’s attempts to call on Trump to meet the same standard of transparency regarding taxation fall hollow on one point: her e-mails. And Trump certainly wouldn’t let that point lay untouched. Liberals will hate to hear the issue arise again, but Trump has a powerful ally in recognizing this failure: Clinton herself. Still, she managed to take the high ground simply by owning her mistake (something Trump repeatedly failed to do with the Birther Movement – but more on that shortly). The comparison between Trump’s failures to appropriately pay some business contractors and avoid bankruptcy and his potential skill for governance seem particularly delightful this time around. Essentially, the question for Trump seemed to be: if we can’t trust you to manage the finances of a business (either by paying owed debts or managing to escape bankruptcy) – how can we trust you with the highest office in the land? Will Americans support Trump as happily if Social Security or VA checks are likewise cut short or withheld? One hopes not. Perhaps in short, though – Trump felt like he was playing a game of PR spin with more competent versing and talent than he’s shown in a while. Clinton felt like she had a far more defined vision (and thus more prepared spin in place), but as though she was still shocked by the candidate she faced and the failings he wears on his sleeves.
The discussion edging into the headline topics of policing, riots, and racial disparities in the justice system may have been the most telling portion of the debate, though. This was one of the few moments where it felt like Trump wasn’t fighting to recall lines and was shooting more from the hip. He speaks too vaguely on the subject (citation and figures tend to be crucial, here), but with a rarely seen level of authenticity. The trouble is that as matters of immigration and race enter the conversation it feels like Trump is little more than a deflating balloon. Trump’s refrains of law and order being called for leave a poor taste in the mouth when one realizes he feels the communities often feeling oppression are the ones he is placing the onus for change on. Hillary’s counters felt far more on point, if still somewhat lacking. She argued for moderation, peace between protestors and police, and reforms. Truly – this is a hopeful direction. However, shortly after making this case she would speak of what can only be described as systemic racism within the policing and justice communities. It draws to my mind the language of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who spoke of a certain type of moderate – a devotee to order before justice. To my mind it begs the question that still lingers for many liberals: is Clinton a moderate or a liberal/progressive? Of course, at this point we could consider Trump’s attempts to backpedal out of his Birther conspiratorial role instead of owning the mistake (much as Hillary did with her e-mail usage) – and Hillary’s response by calling out the lie and acting as Obama’s defender. Truly, this should shore up her liberal credentials – especially given how sick with anger Trump looked as Hillary effectively retorted. And perhaps moderation is the only effort we can make with the police and justice systems as they are now, but the greatest of our founders expected more idealism-in-practice from our populace. I would hope that we fairly expect that too.
The closing examination has to be more of the international stage, though. Digital Security comes particularly to mind as a starting point. Hillary, to her credit, sounds prepped and educated about the dangers of cyber-warfare and the threats of data collection in the digital age. The tragedy here is that it feels as though much of this knowledge was gained through the experience with her e-mails that her opponent (and even she herself) owns as a mistake. Still – the oft measure of a man or woman is not whether they fumble, but whether they step up with a learnt lesson. Hillary appears to have done this. Trump, instead, appears to be citing many sources – including oddly enough his young son. What’s more questionable than amusing, though, is that Trump’s focus seemed to be on military advisors in this regard. While cyber warfare is certainly a rapidly growing militaristic threat, it tends fall well within intelligence agency grounds as well. Measure of whether this is an oversight from Trump or a factor already at play is difficult to make, but the decision does seem telling. It shows a likely one-dimensional style of preparation that, regretfully, seems to mark much of Trump’s campaign to date.
Hillary’s views of ISIS as a threat expanding through the web and the need for & importance of international allies? They were spoken of with eloquence and grace. Trump’s points about the need for our allies to begin delivering more in return than they take? Not a complete mistake to draw attention to, but given the need for international cooperation it falls short of truly valued insight or real intelligence. Perhaps most amusingly, and noteworthy, of all was Trump crediting the power vacuum in Iraq to Clinton & Obama, only to have Clinton point out the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement requiring the US withdrawal was signed by Obama’s predecessor. Quite the riposte from Clinton, as the night approached an end.
I would be remiss to say, though, that third party voices would have added to this stage. Given the number of interruptions and attempts at empty rhetoric, a bit of refreshing content would have been well-received by many.
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