Eyes down for a full house … as we go to press the first debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is about two-thirds in, and it got scrappy around the 20-minute mark. Starting at about 20 minutes, after a few polite exchanges about trade and even a feint at agreement — “Hillary and I agree on a number of things, such as childcare,” Trump said early — the form of the debate started to come apart, as Trump began to interrupt and bait Clinton.
While Clinton began with generalities — we’ve got to have better jobs, smarter jobs — and a few specificities about family leave and equal pay, Trump launched into a version of his stump speech. “Mexico, China, they’re taking our jobs, they’re cheating, Ford, Carrier air-conditioning,” which nevertheless had a more concrete appeal.
He then launched into the airier parts of the stump, talking about the “beautiful” way in which country would revive under “my new tax plans”. Clinton immediately attacked those plans as a new version of trickle-down — “I call it trumped up trickle down,” she said, the first of several pretty flat jokes of the evening.
After that, it all started to come apart. “We are in a big fat ugly bubble,” said Trump, launching into a garbled explanation of the Federal Reserve, which had a touch of the crazy libertarian about it. Trump went in hard on Clinton’s record and might have scored some points with attacks on her support in the ’90s for NAFTA, and her very late conversion to opposition to Trans-Pacific Partnership.
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Trump turned that into a broader attack on politicians “who have failed us for 30 years … What were you doing for 30 years?” “You’re blaming me for everything,” Clinton said sometime later. “Why not?” Trump shot back, one of several sharp shots Trump got in, and which Clinton struggled with.
However, Clinton returned to the fray when a question turned on Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns — and then took it onto Trump’s business credentials, his $600 million-plus debt, his refusal to pay creditors and the like. “Maybe you won’t release your returns because you don’t want people to know you pay no taxes?” “That would make me smart,” Trump replied, a riposte-becoming-Democratic-ad before your eyes.
A section on race turned on inner-city crime and racial profiling, which gave Trump a chance to pinion Clinton on her both-sides-now response on police deaths and black deaths — “we need respect for … everyone”. Clinton had the opportunity to slate Trump for his firm’s involvement in discriminatory housing in the ’70s – and then step aside as he gave a garbled response to questions about his five-year “flirtation” with birtherism. “Your response, Secretary Clinton?” said the moderator. “Well, listen to what you just heard,” said Clinton, to laughter.
With the “presses” “ready” to “roll”, the debate has turned to national security — a chance for Trump to hit Clinton on Iraq, and Clinton to slide in as many Putin references as possible. Which was characteristic of the whole debate, really — Clinton selling rationality, Trump parading his simpler, more populist style. I would call it as a draw, neither side landing blows or prompting gaffes. Few people will be convinced across from one side to the other by what was really a rematch.
Stop Press: And of course all the good stuff happens just as you file, with Trump getting into a great fight with the moderator about whether he had been against the Iraq war. “I was totally against the war! I told Howard Stern! Ask Sean Hannity! … You know what the best thing about me is? My temperament! I have a much better temperament than Secretary Clinton! I have the best temperament!” He then launched into a bizarre ramble about Clinton — “You were behind a blue screen yelling at someone, it was appalling!” Pause. “Wow,” said Clinton, to laughter. Wow indeed.