When Hillary Clinton walked out in a red pantsuit, the tone for the first debate was set. Fashion misgivings aside, if there is one thing Clinton demanded, it was respect. Coming into the debate, voters’ expectations were for Clinton to win. Ten percent more of voters considered Clinton the favorite, according to a CNN/Gallup poll. Expectations were met.
That is not to say that the debate did not matter. It did matter. To many Americans, debates serve as an important time to get to know both candidates, based on both their policy, and their character. Afterwards, the narrative given by the separate campaigns and the media will focus on the relative success and failure of each candidate to state their opinions and policy.
Clinton came out prepared, and swinging. Donald Trump, who was hoped to lash out, did lash out. Thinking presidentially, Clinton was the better candidate. Interjections by Trump, interruptions by Trump and the standard long-winded rhetoric of Trump added to this idea of preparedness. Clinton said it herself when she stated, “Trump just criticized me for preparing for this debate. You know what else I prepared for? Being president.” It’s correct. In the policy areas covered tonight “” the economy, the racial divide, national security and foreign policy “” Clinton showcased policies backed up by facts. Her references were either to her own work, or to the realities of the past. Trump’s references included “a study that I read from somewhere,” Sean Hannity and himself. In terms of actual speech and rhetoric, Clinton was considerably stronger. She avoided attacking Trump out of the blue, while Trump repeatedly interjected as she or the moderator spoke.
Besides avoiding the “presidential” look, Trump made numerous errors which will hurt him down the line. His first interjection, when Clinton spoke about him stiffing workers, was “That’s called business, by the way.” When she attacked him on not paying the federal income tax, Trump responded that it was “Because I’m smart.” Numerous times during the debate, Trump would move toward the mic and say “Wrong” or “Not true.” This is another manifestation of the unpreparedness with which Trump came to the first debate. He was simply not ready for the environment, wholly different from the crowded debates of the Republican primaries. Despite the crowds attempts to rouse itself, both for Clinton and Trump, Trump was unable to bring back the energy and success he found at the hands of his many opponents. Most importantly, Trump got into an argument with Lester Holt, the moderator, about his support, or lack thereof, for the Iraq War. When compared to Clinton, who was calm and collected, and swallowed words instead of lashing out, Trump was a petulant child.
Clinton still has her limitations, however. During the debate she lacked creativity, and missed strong jabs to throw Trump off his game. In retrospect, they definitely were not necessary, but a stronger and more prepared opponent would be able to speak more clearly and powerfully with Clinton as their contestant. Her talking points are rigid, and many times during the debate she referred to her notes. This is also not a negative, but against a stronger opponent, she would be hurting. Because of the nature of Trump, Clinton is able to avoid a lot of the spotlight, allowing her to shine more. When juxtaposed against the Republican nominee, she is prepared, cool and patient, traits a president needs.
Clinton was able to continue painting her picture of Trump tonight, while avoiding the e-mails topic. Through discussions of the economy, she portrayed Trump as an out-of-touch billionaire who has hurt the working man. In the framing of the racial divide, she painted Trump as a racist, who discriminated against blacks in his past, and who propagated the birther conspiracy. Finally, in the realm of national security, she showed, once again, that a man who can be baited with a tweet cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons. Whether Trump was throwing back to the 1980s by attacking Japan’s automobile industry, or stating that China should invade North Korea, he showed a dangerous lack of understanding of the realities of foreign policy.
Monday was an important first step for Clinton. But it is not her last.