Searching for substance in the presidential debate

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(E minus 36) The first Hillary Clinton/ Donald Trump matchup took place at Hofstra University on September 26; it was reportedly watched by some 90 million Americans and ran 90 minutes without a break. (Hmm, if TV viewers watched half of the debate on average, that would work out to 4 billion viewer minutes.) Most of the footage displayed side by side profiles of the candidates. This eliminated the physical separation between the candidates on the stage and the visual presence of commentator Lester Holt, not to mention the room and live audience, while emphasizing the facial expressions of the candidates as the debate proceeded.

The burning question afterwards was “who won,” and the consensus seems to be that Clinton prevailed by staying on message and attacking Trump’s perceived vulnerabilities. She got some help from Holt, who directed most of his “follow-up” questions to Trump and offered several corrective comments that were not well grounded. See, e.g., Fact-checking Lester Holt; here’s the legal back story on the stop-and-frisk ruling, Wall Street Journal,

Mr. Trump invoked stop and frisk as a way to “take the gun away from criminals” in high-crime areas and protect the innocent. That provoked Mr. Holt, who said that “stop and frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York.” Mr. Trump then noted that the ruling in the case came from a “very against police judge” who later had the case taken away from her. Mrs. Clinton then echoed Mr. Holt. *** The federal judge in the stop-and-frisk case was Shira Scheindlin, a notorious police critic whose behavior got her taken off the case by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

For his part, Trump spent too much time defending himself against personal slights versus attacking his opponent’s record and positions. He also interrupted Clinton on numerous occasions, generally to his own detriment.

The GOP nominee later complained that his microphone hadn’t been functioning properly, resulting in poor voice quality for the live audience. Some were disposed to doubt this, but the Commission on Presidential Debates eventually announced that there had indeed been a problem – albeit without publicly expressing regret or explaining why the problem hadn’t been ;promptly fixed. Debate commission: There were “issues” with Trump’s microphone, James Antle, Washington Examiner,

During the debate post-mortem, Trump loyalists rationalized that Clinton hadn’t landed a knockout blow and that their guy would learn from his mistakes and perform better in the other two debates. Maybe, but Trump’s momentum in the polls seemed to have suffered. Ominous signs for Donald Trump in new [Fox News national] poll, Byron York, Washington Examiner,

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At the outset, Holt explained the structural design of the debate – making it sound as though a serious discussion of policy issues was on tap. Transcript (NPR, annotated), 9/26/16.

The 90-minute debate is divided into six segments, each 15 minutes long. We’ll explore three topic areas tonight: Achieving Prosperity; America’s Direction; and Securing America. At the start of each segment, I will ask the same lead-off question to both candidates, and they will each have up to two minutes to respond. From that point until the end of the segment, we’ll have an open discussion.

Most viewers would be hard pressed to recall the lead-off questions at the start of each segment (we had to consult the transcript ourselves), let alone what the candidates said about them. So it may be helpful to recap and assess this information, as the following report will try to do.

1. We’re calling this opening segment achieving prosperity and central to that is jobs. There are two economic realities in America today. There's been a record six straight years of job growth and new census numbers show incomes have increased at a record rate after years of stagnation. However, income inequality remains significant. And nearly half of Americans [are] living paycheck to paycheck. Beginning with you, Secretary Clinton - why are you a better choice than your opponent to create the kinds of jobs that will put more money into the pockets of American workers? *** Mr. Trump the same question to you. It's about putting money, more money into the pockets of American workers. You have up to two minutes.

CLINTON: Infrastructure investment – clean renewable energy – raise minimum wage – guarantee equal pay for women – encourage more profit sharing – paid family leave – earned sick days – affordable childcare – debt-free college – wealthy pay their fair share of taxes – close corporate tax loopholes – smart fair trade deals - streamline regulations for small businesses.

TRUMP: Renegotiate trade deals – crack down on countries that are taking advantage of US on trade – reduce top corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% -– if US companies relocate operations to other countries, e.g., Ford to Mexico, tax products they send back to US – cut regulations (however, Trump erroneously denied Clinton’s claim that he had called manmade climate change a hoax) - childcare should be subsidized, but I may have some differences with Secretary Clinton on the details.

Comment: These talking points are familiar. We’re convinced that Clinton’s ideas about raising taxes and burdening the economy with new or enhanced social entitlements would be unwise. On the other hand, we don’t agree with Trump’s ideas about trade and his tax cuts wouldn’t be affordable without major spending cuts to go along with them – which he hasn’t credibly proposed. Dueling economic plans,

2. [We’re] still on the issue of achieving prosperity. And I want to talk about taxes. The fundamental difference between you two concerns the wealthy. Secretary Clinton, you’re calling for a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. I’d like you to further defend that. And Mr. Trump, you’re calling for tax cuts for the wealthy and I’d like you to defend that. The next two minute answer goes to you, Mr. Trump. *** All right, you have two minutes of the same question to defend tax increases on the wealthiest Americans, Secretary Clinton.

TRUMP: If the wealthy pay less in taxes, they will create jobs by expanding their companies – I’ll get rid of carried interest provision – make it possible for companies to repatriate $2.5 trillion (or could be higher) parked in other countries – just takes a little leadership.

CLINTON: Trumped-up, trickle-down economics won’t work, caused the 2008-2009 economic mess – a lot of really smart, wealthy people know that – it’s time to invest in the middle class – Mr. Trump’s tax plan would add $5 trillion to the debt over next 10 years; my spending proposals would be fully paid for.

Comment: Trump’s tax proposals wouldn’t necessarily be affordable, but they definitely would stimulate the economy – especially if coupled with a rollback of onerous regulations. Hillary’s Red Army march of tax-hike destruction, Larry Kudlow,,

Trump’s] new 15 percent corporate tax-rate plan would unleash overseas-profits repatriation and a huge surge in corporate investment. By itself, the business tax reform could grow the economy by 4 percent. But Trump has to be more persuasive. He could highlight how middle-income wage earners benefit most from lower business taxes. He could emphasize his tax cut on small mom-and-pop businesses. He could explain that lower individual tax rates boost what President Ronald Reagan called "take-home pay" -- more money in your pocket. He could stress how lower business taxes lead to a large increase in incentives that boost investment, productivity, risk-taking, new business formation and worker wages.

In contrast, Clinton’s tax proposals would have a negative economic impact. Detail and analysis of Hillary Clinton’s tax proposals, Kyle Pomerleau & Michael Schuyler, Tax Foundation,

“On a static basis, [her] tax plan would lead to 0.7 percent lower after-tax income for the top 10 percent of taxpayers and 1.7 percent lower income for the top 1 percent. When accounting for reduced GDP, after-tax incomes of all taxpayers would fall by at least 0.9 percent.”

3. We move into our next segment talking about America's direction. Let's start by talking about race. The share of Americans who say race relations are bad in this country is the highest it's been in decades. Much of it amplified by shootings of African-Americans by police, as we have seen recently in Charlotte and Tulsa. Race has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide? Secretary Clinton - you get two minutes on this. *** Ok Mr. Trump, you have two minutes, how to heal the divide?

CLINTON: Restore trust between communities and the police by seeing that police are using the best training & techniques, employ force only when necessary – criminal justice reform to eliminate systemic racism, provide more second chances – bring communities together – implement common sense gun regulations to get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them – phase out privately-run prisons.

TRUMP: Promote law and order – law abiding black residents are threatened, welcome police protection - stop and frisk worked in New York, could do wonders in Chicago as a way to take guns away from gangs – don’t let people who are on a security watch or “no fly” list have guns, but give them a chance to get their names cleared.

Comment: It seems illogical to place all of the onus for adjustments on police officers versus private citizens; there is room for improvement on both sides. What responsibility do black Americans have to prevent police shootings? John Hawkins,,

The real core of the issue that no one seems to want to address is that a significant percentage of black Americans seem to believe that they should be able to do dumb and dangerous things around the police without facing any repercussions for it. Of course, there are people of all races who do dumb and dangerous things around the police. However, the difference is that if some white guy with a rap sheet as long as his arm resists arrest, attacks a cop and gets shot, there aren’t going to be any white people walking around with “Stop Killing Us” signs.

4. The second question re America’s direction was apparently omitted due to the extensive back-and-forth about why Trump wasn’t releasing his tax returns (1st segment) and had pursued “birther” question against President Obama (2nd segment).

5. Our next segment is called securing America. And we want to start with a twenty first century war happening every day in this country. Our institutions are under cyberattack, and our secrets are being stolen. So my question is, who's behind it? And how do we fight it? Secretary Clinton, this answer goes to you. ### Mr. Trump you have two minutes of the same question -- who’s behind it and how do we fight it?

CLINTON: Cyberattacks are increasingly coming from state actors, notably Russia’s hack of the DNC – Vladimir Putin is playing a really tough, long game – we need to make it clear to bad actors that US has much greater capacity than they do – we don’t want trouble, but we’ll defend our private-sector and public-sector information – I’ll finish taking out ISIS – it’s time for an intelligence surge.

TRUMP: We don’t know who hacked the DNC – US has lost control of things that it used to control (maybe our offensive cyberwar edge isn’t as great as we think) – had we left some troops in Iraq and taken the oil, there wouldn’t be an ISIS problem now.

6. Which leads [to] my next question as we enter [sic] our last segment here, still on the subject of securing America on nuclear weapons. President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation's long-standing policy on first use. Do you support the current policy? Mr. Trump, you have two minutes on that. ### Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton, you have two minutes.

TRUMP: We need to update our nuclear capabilities, as Russia has certainly been doing – if there’s a nuclear war it’s all over, but we can’t afford to take anything off the table – let China straighten out North Korea – Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons thanks to the Iranian nuclear deal.

Comment: Whether Trump knew what the current policy was or not (Holt avoided divulging this information), his point about not taking anything off the table was in keeping with its prime rationale: announcing a no first use [NFU] policy for nuclear weapons might encourage other powers to act more aggressively. Obama’s nuclear farewell, Wall Street Journal,

“The fatal flaw of the warm and progressive-sounding NFU proposal is that it tells would-be aggressors that they do not have to fear U.S. nuclear retaliation even if they attack us or our allies with advanced conventional, chemical, and/or biological weapons,” warns former Pentagon official Keith Payne. Leaders from Pyongyang to Tehran, Moscow and Beijing would feel “greater license” to act as aggressively as possible short of nuclear war.

CLINTON: I would reassure foreign allies that US will honor its mutual defense treaties - Iranian nuclear deal didn’t solve all our problems with Iran, but at least they won’t get nuclear weapons for a while.

Comment: As a former secretary of State, Clinton surely did know what the current policy is Her reference to mutual defense treaties does not rule out announcement of a NFU policy, so essentially she ducked the question.

* * * * *

After all the pre-debate hoopla, the first presidential debate was disappointing for anyone hoping for a serious policy discussion. The commentator asked mediocre lead-in questions, and he allowed the ensuing discussion to stray into irrelevant areas such as comments Trump has made about women and Clinton’s alleged lack of stamina.

Neither of the candidates offered incisive, well-reasoned answers on policy questions, and some considerable differences between them – e.g., Trump’s proposed tax cuts versus Clinton’s proposed tax increases – were left unexplained.


I think most people have already made up their minds, i.e., these debates really are just political theater. – SAFE member (DE)

Lester Holt’s observation that stop and frisk has been declared unconstitutional is a good example of his obvious bias. Evidently Holt forgot that the basic concept of stop and frisk was upheld by the US Supreme Court (opinion for the Court written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, two concurring opinions, one dissent) in Terry v. Ohio, 1968. - SAFE director

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