If you expected Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to pull their punches when they finally stood on stage together, Monday night’s opening debate at Hofstra University put that notion to rest.
Top takeaways from Clinton vs. Trump, round 1:
Different visions, different debaters
The debate proved there is a reason presidential candidates are scripted. Clinton had facts and figures at her disposal, had opposition research at the ready that Trump was unprepared for, and had a few catchy retorts scripted. This did not always work in her favor: She strained to squeeze in a line about her absence form the campaign trail. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.” But it gave her ammunition to enrage Trump, who then responded with disjointed answers. He did not have crisp responses on questions he admitted he knew he would be asked about — his tax returns, “stop and frisk” policing, even the Iraq War (more on that later).
For Trump, this is again part of the branding: he is the outsider, the unpracticed one, the fresh voice. But it makes it hard to lure new voters who still have doubts about his preparedness.
Trump calls bareknuckled business a virtue
On several occasions, Clinton accused Trump of making money at the expense of working people, but Trump attributed those actions to just good business practices. When Clinton said he rooted for the housing market to crash so he could make money on other people’s losses, Trump interjected that “that’s called business.” When she said he paid no federal taxes, he said “that makes me smart.” When she said he did not pay contractors who worked on his buildings, using as an example an architect who designed a clubhouse on his golf course, Trump replied “maybe he didn’t do a good job, and I was unsatisfied with his work.” Trump’s argument, in a nutshell, is “it’s about time that this country has somebody running it who has some idea about money.”
The birther thing
Trump said he knew he would be questioned about his role in raising doubts about Barack Obama’s nationality, but when the question came, he attempted to turn it on its head, claiming it just proved his ability to get things done. Trump repeated the claim that Clinton’s 2008 campaign was first involved in circulating questions about Obama’s nationality, though it appears to have been only a few of her supporters with no backing from the campaign. “She failed to get the birth certificate,” Trump said. “When I got involved, I didn’t fail. … I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate.”
It is a strange defense, and Clinton turned it against him, noting that Trump had been sued in the 1970s for racial discrimination in his rental properties. “He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior, and the birther lie was a very hurtful one.”
If the goal was to attract black voters, Clinton’s response was likely the more effective one.