2016 US Election, Jason Jarvis

Jarvis: Clinton wins First US Presidential Debate

Judge: Dr Jason Jarvis

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton won this debate for two primary reasons.  First, and most importantly, she was the most Presidential of the two candidates.  In both style and substance Hillary proved a seasoned veteran who understand the visual politics at the heart of effective Presidential rhetoric.  Second, Hillary outlasted Donald.  Despite the sexist attack on Hillary that she had no “stamina,” Trump was the horse that faltered by the end of the race.  Questions about his tax returns, birtherism, Islamophobia and general failure to grasp foreign policy took their toll.  Secretary Clinton was able to pound Mr. Trump on details, and without a loud audience cheering him own, Trump appeared to wilt as the debate went on.

First, Hillary was the most Presidential of the two candidates.  Scholars of American rhetoric point to the role that public image plays in politics.  American voters are constantly comparing the candidates to their own mental image of what it means to “be Presidential.”  This mental image is constructed and fed by mass mediated portrayals of the President.  Scholar Kevin M. DeLuca notes that “image politics” was a key aspect of Ronald Reagan’s success as a candidate and President.  In short, style (manner) really matters, because it helps to determine whether each candidate meets our psychological litmus test for the job.  On this count Hillary was way ahead of Donald in image politics.

Secretary Clinton had superior non-verbal communication to Mr. Trump.  She consistently smiled and at least appeared to be enjoying the debate.  She laughed at Mr. Trump’s jokes, and refrained from overreacting to his personal attacks or his efforts to talk over her.  Mr. Trump was quite expressive non-verbally – sometimes agreeing with Clinton, other times pursing his lips and shaking his head and occasionally interrupting when he could not contain himself.  He did not have a poker face, and historically this has been something that plays negatively with audiences that have split screen TV feeds.

Trump was less aggressive than in the Republican debates, but he still used ad-hominem attacks.  For example, in defending his support for “stop and frisk” policies he pointed out how much he had been campaigning before the debate while Hillary was preparing: “You’ve seen me I’ve been all over the place.  You decided to stay home, that is OK.”  Clinton responded in kind: “I think that Mr. Trump criticized me for preparing for this debate.  And you know what else I prepared for?  I’m prepared to be President.”

In contrast, despite repeated attempts from Trump to provoke Clinton, she never lost her cool and consistently managed to pick Trump apart on the details of his ideas while dropping some of her own one-liners.  For example, when challenged by Trump that she had no plan to fix the economy she quipped: “I have a plan and I wrote a book about it.  You can pick it up tomorrow at the airport.”  I would really like to see Secretary Clinton try to perfect the pregnant pause and just drop the mic.  Too often she would speak before her one liner before it had a chance to sink in.  Filling up the space with more words, when a bit of silence would suffice – this is something Trump does well.

The exchange between the candidates over Japan was a key moment in the debate, causing Mr. Trump to end the contest on a down note.  Mr. Trump argued that by placing countries like Japan and South Korea under the American nuclear umbrella, they were getting something for nothing.  He suggested that America should make these countries pay for their defense or refuse to protect them in future.  Secretary Clinton immediately responded by speaking to the international community (rather than the audience or Trump), and reminding them that American security guarantees were linked to ironclad agreements.  It is never a good sign when another candidate feels the need to reassure American allies that neither party has the power to unilaterally vacate signed treaties.  Trump’s threat to hold America’s mutual defense treaty with Japan up for ransom was a major gaffe that made Secretary Clinton seem like a seasoned diplomat.

Second, Hillary outlasted Donald.  Trump started forcefully, and was focused in his consistent criticism of traditional politicians such as Clinton.  He hammered home is message that America is losing to Mexico on immigration and trade policies.  As Dr. Aaron Walker pointed out, Trump deployed smart tactical use of agreement to avoid some issues of controversy.  He successfully navigated workplace gender discrimination by supporting paid child leave – noting that he and Secretary Clinton agree before pivoting to a discussion of companies leaving America to build factories in Mexico.

Secretary Clinton seemed particularly uncomfortable on cybersecurity issues, delivering her least polished response and looking very much like digital issues are written in a language she does not understand.  In my opinion Mr. Trump lost an opportunity here to demand more from his opponent.  Neither candidate seemed to know that we already have a Strategic Command that deals with cyber issues (the US Cyber Command, created while Clinton was Secretary of State).  Neither candidate could offer concrete policies, or appeared ready to discuss how to protect consumer data in light of the stream of data breaches taking place at American corporations.

However, as the debate wore on, Hillary got stronger, particularly on the issue of race in America where she seemed both comfortable and energized.  Secretary Clinton pounced on Trump’s support for birtherism, and his claim that he was successful in making Obama produce a birth certificate was not compelling, even as theater.  Mr. Trump tried to reach out to people of color by suggesting that the situation facing inner cities was dire, and that residents should blame politicians like Hillary.  Mr. Trump defended the “stop and frisk” tactics of Rudy Giuliani in New York City, but could not explain how those policies would be implemented since they were declared unconstitutional by courts.  African American people universally hated “stop and frisk,” so it was not clear how Mr. Trump’s defense of the policy would help him win African American votes even if it were constitutional.

Mr. Trump was also challenged on his refusal to release his tax returns and his flip flop on the Iraq war.  In refusing to take responsibility for either issue, he stood in sharp contrast to Secretary Clinton who stated that she had simply screwed up with her email server and she would never do it again.  Despite raising the issue of NATO, Trump appeared to be unaware that NATO was critical to the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, claiming that his criticism of NATO 4 months ago prompted them to begin addressing the issue of terrorism.  Mr. Trump was very critical of American policy on Iran, but did not present any real alternative to the current agreement.

At the end of the debate, both sides had reasons to defend their candidate. Both sides played to their bases, and had moments that they will point to as critical in highlight the strengths of their candidate.  Nonetheless, by the end of the contest Secretary Clinton looked like a more credible, knowledgeable leader.  Advantage Clinton.


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