Marketed for days like the Super Bowl, last night’s first presidential debate inevitably failed to live up to the hype. The favorite, Hillary Clinton, won as expected, coming off as prepared, experienced, and tough. The underdog, Donald Trump, jabbed and floundered as predicted. He probably benefited simply by being able to stay in the fray for 90 minutes.
The debate took place with Democrats reeling from polls showing the race in a dead heat. Unimaginably, momentum—“mighty mo”—was on Trump’s side. CNN’s post-debate snapshot poll suggested that Clinton succeeded in reassuring her own voters and gaining an edge with independents. Surely, African Americans, women, and young people will come away from the debate with further doubts about Trump’s retrograde views.
Conventional wisdom holds that debates are won or lost in the first 30 minutes, after which the audience declines and attention flags. And the best exchange of the night launched the debate, sparked by moderator Lester Holt good first question: How would you create good jobs that put more money in people’s pockets?
Clinton argued for a policy that would “invest in you.” She called for public investment in infrastructure, innovation, renewable energy, and education. She’d raise the minimum wage, enforce equal pay for women, and move to affordable childcare to help with “work family pressures.”
Trump began with a characteristic riff on how bad things are: Jobs are fleeing; China and Mexico are stealing our jobs. We must “stop jobs from being stolen from us,” stop US companies from leaving the country. He called for “reducing taxes tremendously” and renegotiating our trade agreements.
Clinton pivoted from trade to taxes, dismissing a return to a “trumped-up trickle-down” policy that had failed in the past. In the first personal attack of the night, she effectively linked Trump’s views to his personal history of benefiting from a multimillion-dollar loan from his father in contrast to her father’s hard work building a small business.
Trump fell for it, as he did throughout the night, taking up time to defend his business. He returned to trade, and what clearly was intended to be his theme of the night: “She’s been doing this for 30 years,” and has failed to get it done. When Clinton argued that her husband had a pretty good record, Trump pounced: “He passed NAFTA,” and assailed Clinton’s record on trade, putting her on the defensive.
She pivoted back to taxes and investment as opposed to trickle down. Trump argued:
You are going to approve one of the biggest tax increases in history. You are going to drive business out. Your regulations are a disaster, and you’re going to increase regulations all over the place. And by the way, my tax cut is the biggest since Ronald Reagan. I’m very proud of it.