Analysis

Clinton Overpowers Trump in Testy Presidential Debate

The Democratic candidate was tougher and fiercer than any of Trump’s 16 GOP rivals.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton after the presidential debate at Hofstra University, Septemebr 26, 2016.
Spencer Platt, AFP

HOFSTRA UNIVERSITY - The outcome of Monday’s first Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was evident from their behavior in the first few minutes after it was over. Clinton, her husband Bill and her daughter Chelsea were smiling widely, absorbing congratulations from the crowd, prolonging the moments as much as possible. Trump seemed tense, his smile and those of his family seemed forced and he left the stage as soon as it wouldn’t appear he was running away.

Clinton came out swinging and never let up. She was tougher and fiercer than any of Trump’s 16 Republican candidates. She not only accused him of lying and cheating, she said he was a racist and that he was crazy. Trump was visibly taken aback and could be heard vocally reacting to some of her more blistering attacks.

Trump did land some punches of his own, especially on Clinton’s supposed responsibility for the rise of ISIS and on her emails. But he was forced to play much more defense than he’s used to, and did not come out the better for it. Clinton landed heavy blows on Trump, with the most damaging perhaps pertaining to his tax returns. He’s concealing something, perhaps he didn’t pay any federal taxes, she said, and a flustered Trump, incredibly, seemed to confirm her suggestion, saying “Yeah, cause they’d only be squandered.”

The performances of the two candidates mirrored their perceived personas: Clinton was well prepared after days on end of simulated debates and poring over policy papers. She could be seen at times reading off notes that she had prepared in advance. Trump was ad-libbing, also as usual, relying on his instincts and quick responses to offset his disadvantage in details. But he often seemed to lose the plot, speaking incoherently at times or advancing far fetched theories like the one that the nuclear deal with Iran should have included Iranian efforts to curtail North Korea’s nuclear capabilities or to stop the war in Yemen. Trump also used his recent meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu as a talking point, saying that “Bibi is not a happy camper”, presumably in connection with the Iran deal.

The two contenders were testy, often lashing out at each other, but at the same time projected a kind of mutual amusement, as if both were aware that they were actors in a script. The issue of Trump’s attitude towards women was a leitmotif that ran throughout the entire debate, with Clinton lashing out at past statements made by the New York Tycoon, which he lamely denied.

They provided gripping television that was slated to be broadcast to over 100 million Americans. Most analysts and commentators thought that Clinton had won handily, whether by points or by a knockout. Whether undecided voters thought the same remains to be seen, of course. Judging by recent experience, Clinton shouldn’t be breaking out the champagne bottles just yet.