Well, the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has come and gone and the results are in—people are curled up in the fetal position because one of these two will become our next President and they don’t really like either of them! OK, so maybe I’m not speaking for everyone watching, but I tend to wonder how much what was said in the debate will actually change people’s opinions on whom they plan to vote for come November. As for who won the debate, I’m not here to try to pass judgment. After all, I’ve watched boxing fights after which I was pretty sure one participant should emerge victorious because he seemed to dominate the other boxer, but left to the judges’ decision, the actual results were completely the other way around. If you ask the candidates and their campaigns, each side would definitely say they were the winners. For what it’s worth, early polling suggests the American audience thought Hillary won, though I’m more loath as the days go by to trust the veracity of some of these surveys, if I may say so.
But like I said, I’m not here to crown a winner. I seek only to provide commentary where I think it warranted, as well as to offer suggestions for how future presidential debates may be improved. With this behind us, let’s take a narrower look at what went down in the first presidential debate—you know, if we can stand it. Might I suggest some unhealthy snacks or some liquor to sustain you as you read through?
UNITED STATES OF JOE’S ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY COMMENTS ON THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE
1. First of all, let me confess that I didn’t actually watch the debate, which was starting before I had even gotten home from class. To be fair, though, I probably would have been distracted by watching my Fantasy Football team’s hopes of a win go down in flames anyway. To the tandem of Devonta Freeman and Coby Fleener, who proved instrumental in my defeat, let me say that I hate you both with the passion of a thousand burning suns.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system (not really), since I didn’t see the event live, I can’t really comment on what kind of job Lester Holt did as moderator. The general response of viewers and pundits, though, seemed to be a positive appraisal of Holt’s handling of the affair. Although let’s be fair—next to the dumpster fire that was Matt Lauer’s presiding over the Commander-in-Chief Forum, pretty much anything halfway decent would feel like a great success. Kudos, Lester! You’re better at taking Donald Trump to task than Jimmy Fallon!
2. As you might already know/remember from viewing the debate on television, the opening segment was devoted to “Achieving Prosperity.” Sounds like something in Trump’s wheelhouse, doesn’t it? The candidates were first asked about what they would do to stimulate job creation. Hillary Clinton gave her familiar lines: the wealthy need to pay their fair share, let’s invest in infrastructure, raise the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, affordable child care, debt-free college, close tax loopholes, was there anything on the Democratic Party platform I didn’t check off? Donald Trump, meanwhile, railed about China and Mexico and vowed to cut taxes, and also said he was going to renegotiate a lot of trade deals. Because it’s just that simple.
When pressed specifically on how we get companies to bring jobs back to America, Trump was, well, largely incoherent, and pivoted to the notion NAFTA was a bad trade deal. Which may be true, but that doesn’t answer the question. The best the man of the orange and thin skin could come up with was that he wouldn’t let corporations leave, but whether this involves the threat of taxes should they relocate, or literally stopping them at the airport and barring them from getting aboard their overseas flights, Trump’s remedy is woefully impractical.
3. The candidates, under Lester Holt, moved swiftly onto the next question. Well, at least the moderator tried to make that happen. Holt attempted to segue into a discussion about taxes, but first, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had to argue about taxes before they could, well, argue about taxes. To be fair to Clinton, Trump started it, talking about how Clinton would jack up taxes and he would slash them and how wonderful that would be for the US of A. Hillary then countered by saying Donald’s loose semblance of an economic plan would jack up the national debt, while hers would reduce it. Then Donald Trump was all, like, nuh-uh. And Hillary Clinton was all, like, yuh-huh. And then Trump was all, like, whatever! When the dust was allowed to settle, Trump tried to suggest that the wealthy were going to create tremendous jobs. (Except they don’t.) He also—and give El Diablo his due—mentioned eliminating the carried interest loophole, by which wealthy hedge fund managers are allowed to claim a more favorable tax rate by classifying their income as capital gains, even though there is no legal basis for this, and even though President Obama could apparently totally f**king end this practice with little more than a phone call but hasn’t. Then Clinton was alleged to have been given two minutes to respond, but her opponent wouldn’t shut his big yap.
Eventually, what passed for a conversation moved to the subject of Donald Trump’s tax returns, which, as I’m sure you know, he still hasn’t gone and released. Once more, Trump claimed he couldn’t comply with this request because he is under audit. If there’s one thing I have stressed in this blog, perhaps other than the logical fallacy of saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter,” it’s that THIS IS NOT A VIABLE EXCUSE FOR TRUMP NOT TO RELEASE HIS TAXES. THE IRS SAYS IT’S PERFECTLY OK. Trump’s stupid explanations and deflecting with mentions of private E-mail servers notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton brilliantly took the opportunity to insert possible reasons as to why Trump is dodging calls for his tax returns like he (allegedly) dodged the draft. Maybe he isn’t worth as much as he says he is. (Highly likely.) Maybe he isn’t as charitable as he would have us believe. (I can almost guarantee it.) Perhaps, quoth Hillary, it is his hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to Wall Street and foreign banks, or that he has paid little to nothing in taxes over the years.
Donald Trump spins this last notion as a virtue, that he’s a smart businessman. Not only isn’t it like he cleverly came up with the idea for any loopholes he exploits, however, but this also puts him at odds with average Americans who aren’t wealthy enough to be able to afford such preferential treatment. You’re not smart in this regard, Mr. Trump. You’re lucky you were born rich with a daddy who bailed you out when you made dumb decisions, and that you could file for bankruptcy (also not your invention) the rest of the time.
4. The second of the first presidential debate’s triptych of topics was devoted to “America’s direction,” which, not for nothing, is a depressingly vague category. Not to mention it invites the retort from the peanut gallery at home that the country’s direction is headed straight to “the shitter.” But I digress. Lester Holt first confronted the candidates with the question of how the United States can heal its bitter racial divides. Hillary Clinton stuck to, ahem, her guns, by primarily calling for more comprehensive gun reform. She also spoke in broad strokes about the need to improve community relations between police and civilians, as well as the need to address systemic bias in the quality of education among different groups and to deal with glaring disparities in arrests and sentencing of people of color. Beyond the gun issue, I’m not so sure how convincing her answer was or should be, but as usual, it sounded good in a superficial way.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, spoke about how we need law and order—and he wasn’t talking about Special Victims Unit starring Mariska Hargitay. He also casually dropped the suggestion that stop-and-frisk is a good idea, even though it’s ineffective, unconstitutional, and unfairly targets African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos. Hillary responded with more of how she opened the segment—essentially pandering to the minority vote. Next, when prompted by Holt to comment on implicit racism, Clinton correctly asserted that we all suffer from it to a degree, but you could tell she was framing it in a way so as to drive home the notion she respects police and, at the same time, try not to further alienate potential undecided voters who possess a great deal of respect for officers of the law and, perhaps, are OK with, you know, the occasional murdering of unarmed black citizens.
Then, Donald Trump—ugh. Look, I could try to parse through the gobbledygook that was his response for a coherent message, but let me just pick out the highlights. Trump gave a shout-out to the NRA. He made a quick, offhand remark about no-fly and watch lists. He, apropos of nothing, invoked Clinton’s use of the term “super-predator.” He argued about how crime was going up in New York City without his beloved stop-and-frisk in place—even though this is patently false. And at the end of all this, Lester Holt actually reminded the Republican Party nominee the conversation was supposed to be about “race.” If this isn’t an indictment of Donald Trump’s inability to provide consistent, coherent answers on topics that make him uncomfortable, I don’t know what is.
5. And then came the part when Lester Holt asked Donald Trump about all the times he pushed the narrative that Barack Obama was born in Africa and demanded he produce his birth certificate just to prove him and other conspiracy theorists wrong. Now, before we get to Trump’s part in the whole “birther” controversy, let’s acknowledge that there is a more complicated truth to Hillary Clinton’s side of the story to which the GOP nominee was referring. Once upon a time, in 2008, when HRC was running against Obama for the Democratic Party nomination, her campaign did help to spread this myth. Much as the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton 2016 campaign were apt to latch on to the idea that, say, Bernie Sanders is an atheist to help her chances with more religious voters, it should be no great surprise that Hillary and her handlers would try to gain any advantage to win.
The notion that Hillary Clinton, anyone who has worked on her campaign, or anyone currently serving such a function came up with birtherism, however, is decidedly untrue. The origins are indeed murky as to who or what exactly devised this whole delegitimizing strategy, but regardless, if there was one person who took this awful baton and ran with it, it’s Donald J. Trump. As Holt even noted in his initial question, Trump persisted with the birther train of thinking—even when most Americans were satisfied that Barack Obama was, in fact, born on American soil. That he “succeeded” in getting Obama to produce formal proof of the circumstances behind his coming into this world is an achievement of dubious distinction. Donald Trump should be as proud of his role in the birther movement as he should be of Trump Steaks. And you can’t even eat birtherism. Believe me—I’ve tried.
6. Last but not least, Lester Holt moderated a segment called “Securing America”—between one candidate who issued E-mails on classified matters from one or more unsecured private servers and unencrypted devices, and another who suggested the Russians hack his opponent to find missing/deleted messages. (I hear you banging your head against the desk in frustration through the screen over there, and I second that notion.) Things being what they are, Hillary Clinton uttered something vague about “making it clear” to other nations, especially China, Iran and Russia, that we’re not going to take their hacking BS. Donald Trump, as usual, didn’t really answer the question, and implied that maybe it wasn’t Russia who was behind the hacks—even though it’s entirely f**king likely that it was Russia, amirite?
Clinton, in her rebuttal, quickly pivoted to talk of more air strikes against ISIS, because if there’s one thing HRC likes, it’s blowing up parts of other countries. Trump, in his rebuttal to the rebuttal, um, blamed Hillary again for causing ISIS—which indirectly may be partially true, but she sure had a lot of help. Then Hillary Clinton pointed out her opponent supported the Iraq War. Donald Trump said he didn’t—but he’s a big f**king liar. Clinton said we’re working with NATO. Trump effectively said NATO can kiss his ass, and invoked, of all people Sean Hannity in his self-defense about support for the Iraq War. After that, they argued about who has the better temperament of the two for the job. I don’t know—this was probably the low point of the debate for me personally, because I think both of them have shitty temperaments. Go ahead—argue about how you’re both going to help perpetuate our country’s involvement in unending wars in the Middle East in elsewhere, while I curl up into a ball underneath my bed, sobbing gently to myself.
7. In the second half of the “Sky is Falling” segment, as I like to call it, Lester Holt began with Donald Trump about President Obama’s considerations of changing America’s policy on first use of nuclear weapons (as in not using nukes first), asking Humpty Trumpty what he thought about the current policy. “The Donald” rambled on about not “taking anything off the table” and invoking China to help deal with North Korea, before launching into a tirade against our deal with Iran and our cash giveaway which has been likened to a ransom payment for American hostages. Hillary Clinton responded by acknowledging that problems do exist within our relationship with Iran, but that they involve more than just our nuclear deal, and furthermore, that there are other more global concerns to contemplate. She also fired back at Trump’s criticisms of the deal, saying he talked an awful lot about how bad it was without providing a suitable alternative.
As it apparently inevitably had to, the conversation was then steered to who had the right “temperament” and “stamina” to be President of the United States given the gravity of these matters, not to mention Holt’s probing about Donald Trump’s earlier statement that he didn’t think Hillary Clinton has “the presidential look.” Le sigh. Maybe this was the low point in the debate, because after all, much of this is shenanigans. Hillary doesn’t know how to negotiate. Donald can’t be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. Hillary is experienced, but it’s bad experience. Donald has repeatedly degraded women. Hillary has cooties. Donald not only smelt it, but dealt it as well. See what I mean? It’s disenfranchising hearing 60- and 70-year-olds talk like catty teenagers when they’re vying for the country’s top political office, but that’s really the vibe I, for one, get, at least.
The debate was brought to a close by Lester Holt asking both candidates if they would support their rival should he or she win. Hillary Clinton said she supports any democratic result—BUT PLEASE DON’T VOTE FOR THAT ASS-CLOWN TRUMP. Donald Trump said he would, sure, THOUGH THAT CLINTON BROAD DOESN’T HAVE THE CHOPS. Great. You don’t like each other, we don’t like you. Let’s bring on the shots of alcohol already, shall we?
As noted earlier, I’m not going to get too caught up in who won or who lost, though I’m pretty sure you could tell from the tenor of my responses who had the better performance in the first presidential debate. Of course, all this focus on “winning” and “losing” only takes us so far anyway. First of all, while the winner may stand to get a bump in the polls, this effect may be temporary, not to mention polling data doesn’t always translate equivalently to votes (in fact, often enough, the actual results are significantly different from what even exit polls predict). More importantly, a large swath of the audience likely believes that no matter who wins the debates—or, for that matter, the election—America loses anyway. So, who won the debate? Who cares, that’s who.
From my point of view, aside from any morsels of substance I can find in all that has been said in these debates throughout the campaign season, my interest in this format for political discussions lies in how the whole process may be improved. The following suggestions are ones you and likely scores of others amateur political analysts have come up with, but nonetheless, bear stating or repeating for the sake of concreteness.
JOE IS STILL NOT DONE WRITING, AND HAS SOME IDEAS FOR MAKING PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES BETTER
If they won’t stop talking, mute ’em
The sports talk show Around the Horn on ESPN, in addition to using a subjective scoring system whereby host Tony Reali awards participants points based on the perceived strength of their arguments, is known for its inclusion of a mute button that cuts off a player’s mic for ten seconds when he or she says something disagreeable to Reali (self-promotion, in particular, tends to be rewarded with the silent treatment and a loss of points). I feel a similar sort of system could be employed with presidential debates. If one of the candidates, say, interrupts incessantly (cough, Donald Trump, cough), he or she can be zapped for 10-second increments, or even could be given a more prolonged time-out if he/she can’t behave in a more adult fashion. Not for nothing, but these presidential hopefuls are discussing topics that may affect millions, if not billions, of people, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars. They should be able to act with a certain amount of dignity if they’re going to be interacting with world leaders—and at the very least, make it easier for us average folks to watch on our televisions.
Throw the red flag
If there’s one thing that fans of different sports teams can agree upon, it’s that referees/umpires routinely blow calls. Some are more egregious than others, but to a certain extent, errors in judgment are understandable given the speed at which professional sports are played. Such is why sports like football have implemented a challenge system whereby coaches can throw a red challenge flag, request that the head referee examine video footage of the play in question of which the ruling is being challenged, and confirm, overturn or let the call stand accordingly.
As fast as human beings and spheroid objects move in sports contexts, lies and misleading statements are fast and furious in presidential debates. In light of this notion, I submit candidates should be afforded two or more fact-checking challenges to use at their discretion. If someone claims he or she never called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” in trade deals, or professes he or she never Tweeted that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, on-site fact-checkers can be consulted to catch candidates in obvious untruths. In fairness, this does run the risk of prolonging already laboriously-long presidential debates, but rather than rely on voters to do their own homework and sift through all of the garbage nominees speak, this could more easily bring the truth to light, as well as shame the prevaricator worse than Cersei Lannister being made to walk the streets of King’s Landing in her birthday suit while her subjects hurl epithets and vegetables at her. OK, maybe not that bad, but you get the point.
Wrap it up!
If you’ve seen any award show like the annual Oscars telecast, you know that when winners go up to accept their well-deserved tokens of appreciation, they tend to run long with their speeches. That’s when the orchestra hits them with the hurry-up music, signaling their allotted time has been spent and that they need to call it an acceptance speech. On a similar note, when candidates are about to go over their specified response time, they should first be given a visual warning like a red light, as stand-up comedians might get when performing in a comedy club, and then when they finally do exceed the given number of minutes, how about we hit ’em with a horn? At least some uptempo clarinet or something—the exact instrument can be negotiated. We should let these candidates for public office know when we say “two minutes,” we mean two minutes, gosh darn it! If you want to talk a bunch of nonsense to get around the fact you lack a strong intended policy, do it when millions of people aren’t watching.
Am I the only one who doesn’t think a Double Dare-esque physical challenge would be a welcome diversion during these debates? Let’s see Donald Trump talk about stamina when he tries to run through a 10-part obstacle course! Or Hillary Clinton wear designer suits when she knows she could get Slimed! Come on, fellow millennials—are you with me?
These are just some small tweaks that I, humbly speaking, believe would really make presidential debates more enjoyable to watch without making these events any less informative. Although judging by this first presidential debate, the proverbial bar to clear may be fairly low. And who knows—with the right changes and better candidates in the future, when we talk about winners of the debate, we can put the American audience in that category. Until then, we can all dream, right?