REVIEW: Who Won the Debate?
9/27/2016 by Dylan James Harper
It’s far more difficult to truly assess who “won” a debate shortly after it’s completed. Forgive the sports metaphor, but it’s somewhat akin to talking about which team “won” a draft the day after. Just like it can take years for draft picks to become either boons or busts for their team, it can take awhile to judge how a candidate’s performance during a debate is actually going to impact their shot at getting elected. Take the first presidential debate in 2012, where Romney wiped the floor with Obama, but looking back on that debate in December of that year, it was clear the effects were overblown, it ultimately was, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. On the other hand, Trump’s debate performances in the primary are a big part of why he won, so debates can’t be dismissed entirely. It’s important to keep all this in mind, as too often the impact of debates are far overblown, or downplayed, depending on which candidate is declared the winner. With all that said…Clinton won.
She had an atrocious start to the debate. Trump continually attacked her and she couldn’t seem to decide whether she wanted to take the high road and let him beat himself, or whether she wanted to respond in kind with the metaphorical loot crate’s worth of ammunition at her disposal. Her inability to pick one or the other landed her in a weird no man’s land early on that just made it appear as if Trump was pushing her buttons, and had Clinton supporters feeling a repeat of the Trump v. Jeb debate performances, only this time with their candidate playing the low energy punching bag.
Trade in particular was where Hillary got into trouble. She allowed Trump to go after former president Bill Clinton’s support of NAFTA, and then put Hillary in a tough spot by asking her whether the TPP, a trade deal several on the left are frustrated with, was “Obama’s fault.” Trade is always a difficult topic for the incumbent, or the candidate of the party that currently holds the presidency, because the opposing candidate can usually just talk about how “bad” a trade deal is without giving any detailed reasons as to why, and count on a mass of voters just sort of believing them.
While there was no clear turning point for Hillary (she was just kind of losing, and then was kind of winning), she seemed to hit her stride when the topic of guns came up. This was an effective topic for her in the primaries against Bernie (guns are one of the few issues where he was overtly to the right of Clinton), and she seemed to find a familiar footing here as well. Trump’s responses started as subtle dog whistles, making sure to mention Chicago (which is code for so called “black on black” violence), but then, in what has become true Trump fashion, couldn’t seem to help him self and started blaming the black community, and Mexican immigrants (someone needs to tell him that people immigrate from more than just one country) for gun violence, and suggesting the infamously racist and unconstitutional “Stop and Frisk” program that New York once implemented as a solution to gun violence.
From then on, a pattern emerged: Clinton would give a party line answer, Trump would rebuke her, but then sputter when pressed for his own answer.That’s actually a viable electoral debate strategy, and some candidates have pulled it off before. In fact, President Obama successfully used it against Clinton in the 2008 primaries, when he had virtually no record to run while she boasted a long resume. Trump, however, is no Barack Obama. The key to that strategy is that the candidate that’s on the offensive can’t make themselves look petty, and Trump struggles in that area. Too often he got caught up deriding Clinton by touting his own prowess as evidence against her. This was a look that the alt-right might adore, but not one that will win him the independents he needs.
In the next presidential debate, set for October 9th and framed as a town hall, look for the candidates to both make some subtle changes. Trump will likely start out a little more reserved. (I say “likely” here because I’m assuming he wants to win and has some decent handlers; this assumption isn’t a small one.) He’ll also try to continually shift the discussion toward the economy. He started to lose when the discussion toward social issues. Clinton, on the other hand, is going to try to have some better answers when it coms to trade. She’ll need more than mocking Trump’s bankruptcies to keep herself afloat on that topic. People on the left love to mock Trump’s failures, but independents aren’t likely to care. They know Trump’s name, and they know he is rich, and convincing people that a rich person is unsuccessful is a difficult task. Clinton will also try to refocus toward social issues, likely immigration, where she easily can push Trump around. Both candidates will probably start softer next time, which will be in stark contrast to both Vice Presidential candidates during the VP debate on October 4th. Speaking of which, be sure to check back here next week for more coverage of this, and the future debates.
Dylan James Harper is the Chief Political Editor for CSuiteMusic
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