2016 US Election

Llano: Clinton wins First US Presidential Debate

Judge: Professor Stephen Llano

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Both candidates had difficulty in speaking on two important issues: Framing the debate, i.e. What tools should we use to decide who won? And establishing principles, i.e. here are the things I stand for or ask myself when I’m thinking about Presidential issues.

Debaters in this format need to remember it’s not about facts/truth/rightness but more about generating discourse that establishes how you think, reason, and judge. People are watching this, not machines. They will look for moments where they can identify with candidates, seeing their own reasoning present in the rhetoric of the candidate. Identification with how someone expresses reason will always beat factual accuracy in these events.

Clinton was doing well with this until she decided to attack Trump’s business practices. Turning the debate into an attack on Trump allowed him time to make some rational arguments in his comfort zone. Better to keep him fragmented and blaming “politicians” rather than sounding good on his own reasoning for running his business his way. He was not establishing principles or frameworks at all, but placing blame. Clinton’s attack inadvertently allowed him time to generate some rationalizing rhetoric to compete with her tone.

Trump should have spent a lot more time discussing infrastructure and how the US government sells this out via political deals to benefit career politicians. This argument might work pretty well for his supporters, but not in this context.  Trump needs more vision, and more principled explanation as to why he would reform taxes or improve infrastructure in those ways. Too often he blamed the current system when he could be establishing his position better.

On race relations, Trump did well using the phrase “Law & Order” without going into too much detail. Clinton did better here discussing the difficulties of doing police work and providing safety while not violating the rights of the people who live in tough areas. Trump was behind on this discussion talking more about his experiences and less about his judgement. Again, framing and principles, although loose, were more established by Clinton.

The biggest error in the debate was when Lester Holt challenged Trump on the facticity of the Stop and Frisk judgement. Instead, he should have asked Trump his thoughts about the ruling, or if he would agree with the legal reasoning behind such a judgement. This would have helped the audience with judgement a lot more than simply going back and forth on the fact itself. Clinton should have pointed out that this reasoning isn’t fit for someone who is President. One has to reason situationally to be President, she could argue. Trump favors the idea that a businessman’s mode of reason is a one-size-fits-all solution. This can be persuasive, but he needs to be more comparative on judgement to win it.

On security and nuclear weapons, Clinton did a much better job of establishing the principles of how she thinks about bilateral defense treaties, NATO, and nuclear weapons. Trump attacked the Iran treaty, but did not establish his own framework. This was a mistake – he should have set out his own thoughts first. His statement near the end would have been good: “I’m a businessman, not a politician. Here’s how I think.” This helps his statements about politicians being poor thinkers en masse make more sense.

The other topics such as the birther issue and Clinton’s appearance don’t seem as relevant to me as the other issues were, but on those Clinton’s responses were more attacks than anything else. It is probably justified, but a missed opportunity to compare modes of thought between the two people who could serve as President.

Clinton did a better job of generating valuable rhetoric in this debate, so I would declare her the “winner.”

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