By John Manning, International Banker
The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates hosted the much-anticipated first of three United States general election 90-minute presidential debates at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on Monday, September 26. NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt moderated the debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Third party candidates in the race—such as Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party—did not participate because they did not reach the required threshold of 15 percent of the national electorate in five predetermined marquee polls. It was estimated that 80 to 100 million people would watch, nearly a third of the total US population. Not since the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 had a presidential debate garnered so much anticipation. It was a high-stakes event for both candidates, who have been running a close race in the polls—for Trump, an opportunity to prove that he has the basic qualifications to lead as commander-in-chief, and for Clinton, a chance to show her sceptics that she is in fact worthy of their trust. It was estimated that one in five Americans could change their minds based on the results of the debate. It was also the first time in American history that a female candidate stood behind a podium at a presidential debate.
The debate was divided into six segments of 15 minutes each and drew from three broad topics: achieving prosperity, America’s direction and securing America. Trump and Clinton were allowed two minutes each to respond to Holt’s questions before debating each other on the topics.
The days immediately preceding the actual debate were nearly as intriguing as the debate itself. In an apparent effort to distract Donald Trump during the debate, Hillary Clinton’s campaign allegedly arranged for businessman, Shark Tank investor and “Trump troll” Mark Cuban to sit in the front row for the “Humbling at Hofstra” event. Trump fired back that he would position Bill Clinton’s ex-mistress, Gennifer Flowers, right beside him. Flowers responded affirmatively, but Trump’s campaign quashed the “invitation”.
Pressure was applied by some media representatives and Clinton supporters on the Commission on Presidential Debates to assign moderator Holt the role of fact-checker during the debate, after allegations that Trump in particular was prone to uttering falsehoods publicly, but the commission’s executive director, Janet Brown, responded to the suggestion during a CNN interview by saying, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.” Fact-checking each other would be left to the candidates during the debate.
Clinton reportedly intensely prepared for the debate, while Trump took a more nonchalant approach. So how did they do?
Throughout the debate, as he has through his campaign, Donald Trump painted a gloomy image of America, a nation deeply in debt with its own companies abandoning it to set up shop in foreign lands with cheaper labor and lighter tax burdens—a country that needs a shrewd leader with a sense for money at the helm and with the skills needed to make the country great again. Clinton’s vision of America was much less dire, though throughout the debate she stressed the needs of the struggling middle class; but as she has done throughout her campaign, much of her focus was on discrediting Donald Trump.
Within the topic of achieving prosperity, Lester Holt began by asking the candidates to explain why they felt they would be the best choice to create jobs.
Clinton emphasized her desire to build an economy that works for all citizens with such approaches as raising the national minimum wage, equal pay for women, profit sharing, closing corporate loopholes. Trump, on the other hand, pointed to the problem of jobs fleeing the country as American companies moved their operations to foreign countries, especially Mexico and China, and the necessity to create more incentives for American businesses to stay in the United States by reducing corporate taxes and renegotiating trade deals. He also pointed to penalizing manufacturers that have left the country with tariffs when selling products back to US citizens. Clinton accused Trump of favoring the wealthy in his tax proposals, frequently emphasizing that she herself had originated from a hard-working middle class family without the privileges that she alleged Trump had enjoyed.
After being asked how they would bring manufacturers back to the United States, Clinton cited independent experts who had claimed that Trump’s plans would increase the deficit and result in job losses while hers would create jobs. She pointed to developing clean energy as a way to create more jobs. Trump agreed with the importance of manufacturing clean energy products such as solar panels but again stressed the need of keeping jobs in the country by giving companies more incentives to stay.
On the subject of trade deals, Clinton pointed to the importance of enforcing current trade deals, while Trump condemned both North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as harmful to the American economy. The two candidates disagreed on Clinton’s level of support for the TPP, which President Barack Obama supports, with Trump claiming that she has termed it “a gold standard” while she insisted that she had concluded that the final agreement was not beneficial for the US.
After Clinton suggested that Trump had no plan, Trump claimed Clinton’s plan would continue to drive businesses out of the country through tax increases and over-regulation. Trump said he would cut regulations to give especially new companies a better chance to get a start. Clinton and Trump differed on taxing the wealthy, with Clinton claiming she would increase taxes on the wealthy, while Trump would reduce them as wealthy corporations generate prosperity and jobs, and that he would make it easier for the wealthy to bring their money back into the country.
On the topic of tax plans, Clinton once again emphasized the importance of investing in the middle class rather than providing more advantages to those at the top. Trump expressed his view that the country, especially the stock market, was in a bubble that could collapse with a rise in interest rates. He took the US Federal Reserve to task for their policies. When asked why he had not released his income tax returns, he pointed out that the IRS was in the midst of auditing them and he had been advised by his lawyers not to release them. He said there was a disclosure statement about his income that was available for review. After Clinton pointed out that the IRS had stated he could release them even when they were being audited, he replied that he would release them after she released the 30,000 some emails from her Secretary of State days that were erased from her private server. Clinton admitted that she had made a mistake with her private server and took responsibility for this but quickly returned to Trump’s reluctance to release his tax returns, suggesting it was either because he was not as rich as he claimed to be, or not as charitable, or owes millions to banks or foreign interests, or has not paid income tax for years…in short, she suggested he might be hiding something that the American people had a right to know.
Trump pointed out that he was a success in business and that the country needed someone who knows something about money. He stressed the nation’s dire need for building better infrastructure but pointed to the limitations posed by the country’s $20 trillion debt, which had doubled under President Obama’s watch. He claimed that the US had spent $6 trillion in the Middle East that could have been used to rebuild the US.
Clinton attacked Trump’s claims of being a successful businessman, stating that he had refused to pay for much of the work that had been done for him in his real estate projects. Trump confirmed that he not paid some contractors if he had not been satisfied with their work. Clinton pointed to his businesses bankruptcies as an indication that he wasn’t as successful as he claimed to be. Trump insisted that he had done well in business, had learned how to take advantage of the laws of the land to fulfill his obligations to promote his companies for the benefit of himself, his family and his employees, and that people in government need to know how to carry on business operations more effectively.
Lester Holt steered the candidates onto the next main topic, America’s direction, by asking them how they would heal the nation’s racial divide.
Clinton confirmed that race was a significant issue in the country, emphasizing that police, too, need to respect the law. She emphasized the importance of remedying racism in the criminal justice system, communities working together, getting guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. Trump stressed the necessity for law and order, especially in inner cities, comparing them to war-torn countries, where thousands die from violence and politicians have largely abandoned them. He suggested stop and frisk as a method police should use to curb violent acts—a tactic both Holt and Clinton condemned as an unconstitutional form of racial profiling. Both candidates agreed that guns need to be kept out of the possession of criminals and terrorists and that relationships between communities and police must improve, but Clinton felt Trump’s picture of black communities was too negative.
Holt raised the issue of the “birther” controversy surrounding the legitimacy of President Obama’s presidency based on doubts about the place of his birth, for which Trump was one of the main public proponents. Many blacks found it hurtful that America’s first mulato president was targeted in this way. Trump insisted that the birther movement originated with Clinton’s campaign during her 2007/2008 race against Obama but admitted that he had pursued it, forcing the president to release his Hawaii birth certificate in 2011. Clinton alleged that Trump has begun his political activity based on this “lie” and also mentioned that he had been sued for racial discrimination in his apartment businesses. But Trump pointed out that the lawsuit was brought against many different real estate firms and that he had settled with no admission of guilt.
Lester Holt introduced the third and final topic, securing America, by asking the candidates how they would handle cyberattacks. Clinton acknowledged the seriousness of cyber threats originating from independent hacking groups and commercial groups as well as from states such as Russia. She used this subject as opportunity to question Trump’s ability to secure the nation, pointing out that he had expressed praise for Putin and supposedly invited the Russians to hack into classified US information (regarding Clinton’s Secretary of State activities). Trump pointed out that he has been endorsed by 200 admirals and generals to lead the country and went on to say that the US should be better than anyone else in getting tough on cyber warfare, no matter what the source of the attacks. Both candidates stressed the need to defeat ISIS online as well as in the air by stopping the group from using the Internet to radicalize youth.
Holt attempted to turn their attention to preventing homegrown terror attacks, but Trump instead kept the conversation on ISIS, accusing President Obama and then Secretary of State Clinton of creating a vacuum in Iraq by removing US troops, which allowed ISIS to form. He stated America should have left some troops behind in Iraq and “taken the oil”, which ISIS has exploited as their primary source of income
Clinton stressed the need to cooperate with allies to share intelligence about potential threats to national security, especially with NATO allies. She claimed Trump has insulted Muslims, while she would build close working cooperation. Trump again criticized the current administration’s handling of Middle East issues, especially the recent deal with Iran, which he said was allowing the militant nation to become a major power after it had suffered under sanctions. He also stressed that all NATO countries need to pay their fair share toward mutual defense according to their treaty.
Trump denied that he had initially supported the war in Iraq, although admitted he had vacillated on the issue during a Howard Stern interview before the war started. He claimed he had a better “winning” temperament compared to Clinton, but she argued that his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons was a threat to national security and that he shouldn’t have his finger on the country’s nuclear codes.
Trump again stressed that in the face of nuclear proliferation around the world, the US could no longer afford to be the world’s police force and that if it defended other countries, they should pay their fair share for the service. He argued that while Russia has been expanding its nuclear arsenal, the US has not been keeping up, making it more vulnerable to a first strike.
In answer to the question as to whether the candidates supported current nuclear policy, Clinton stressed that “words matter when you are president” and that the commander-in-chief would need to assure allies that the US would continue to honor mutual defense treaties and lead as a country others can count on to make decisions that will further peace and prosperity.
Trump was then asked about his potentially sexist comment that Clinton did not have a “presidential look”. However, he claimed that he did not feel she had the stamina needed to be president. She cited her hard work as Secretary of State as testimony to her stamina. He agreed that she had experience but “bad experience”, saying the country could not afford to have another four years of that kind of bad experience.
After Clinton recited some of the sexist comments against women that Trump has made publicly, he hit back against the hundreds of millions of dollars she has spent on negative advertising, much of it misrepresentation, against him during her campaign.
To cap off the debate, Holt asked the candidates if they would be willing to accept the outcome of the election as the will of voters. Clinton affirmed that she supported democracy, that the presidential election is “about you” and the country and the future the American people want. Trump reiterated his commitment to make America great again but also said he would support Clinton if the election goes her way.
They ended the debate as they began it—with handshakes.
Photo Attribution: By Krassotkin (derivative)