The presidential debates are golden opportunities for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to persuade voters that he or she would make a great president. The first debate ended with no surprise; Clinton’s performance satisfied the high expectations that the audience had held. While refuting any charges of being untrustworthy, Clinton appeared assertive, charismatic and presidential, and continued appealing to the wide Hispanic and African American, non-religious, female population that favors her. Moreover, she remained calm and collected when interrupted or humiliated by Trump, and grasped all strong chances to reinforce Trump’s image of a liar, a bully, and a religious and racist bigot.
Clinton has been criticized for her email practices, and before the debate started, she had been ready to offer the United States citizens with an acceptable answer. Specifically, she acknowledged that her email handling was a mistake and that she emphasized, “If I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently. But I’m not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake, and I take responsibility for that” (Blake & Team Fix, 2016). After listening to such a seemingly honest and apologetic answer, Trump started to stumble over his words. His nervous reactions revealed that when challenging Clinton to turn over all her emails, Trump had expected that Clinton would give excuses to defend herself, or equivocate to hide the truth, and that he did not come to the debate with a sensible answer about his annual income tax returns. Although her response was decent, her body language slightly betrayed her. Hillary Clinton could have looked straight to the camera as if she were talking to the United States citizens. She could have lowered and softened her voice to make her response sound more sincere. She could also have reaffirmed that she had posed no threat to national security, and made a case that her trustworthiness should not be questioned because her deep devotion to this nation.
As Trump was making an attempt to ridicule the current Democratic administration and motivate white supremacists, Clinton showed detailed domestic policies, and emphasize their inclusivity with a positive and optimistic tone. Though she did not highlight her ardent advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, she briefly touched on her policies on gender equality, including affordable child care, and paid family and medical leave. Her opening remarks included:
And I want us to do more to support people who are struggling to balance family and work. I’ve heard from so many of you about the difficult choices you face and the stresses that you’re under. So let’s have paid family leave, earned sick days. Let’s be sure we have affordable child care and debt-free college (Blake and Team Fix, 2016).
Later, when talking about her proposal to reinvigorate the economy, Clinton added:
We also have to look at how we help families balance the responsibilities at home and the responsibilities at business. . . . What I believe is the more we can do for the middle class, the more we can invest in you, your education, your skills, your future, the better we will be off and the better we’ll grow (Blake and Team Fix, 2016).
Her policies could have been accused of pandering to college students, parents of college students, young couples and families, and middle-class businessmen. The well-constructed sentences did a beautiful job of appealing to various audience subgroups, nevertheless.
Additionally, Clinton was able to gracefully attack Trump many times by creating the “Lenny Skutnik moment” and employing her natural sense of humor. One of the witty ripostes Clinton delivered was:
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. And I think that’s a good thing (Blake and Team Fix, 2016).
Trump’s slight accusation of Clinton’s “[talking] good around election time” was quickly turned into a powerful weapon. Speeches written by experienced speechwriters had been considered a deceitful part of a political agenda, yet Clinton was able to eloquently change the audience’s perspectives. Preparation was framed as one of the keys to outstanding leadership. Another clever retort was:
Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina (Blake and Team Fix, 2016).
Again, a critique of her physical appearance and her stamina became a tool for Clinton to focus on her accomplishments. Trump should have never belittled his opponent’s physical look, let alone her extensive experience in the politics, which he apparently lacked. Besides, to reveal Trump’s ruthless character, Clinton pointed out illuminating examples of the architect designing Trump’s clubhouse who had never got paid satisfactorily, and Alicia Machado, who Trump once referred to as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.” Even if Clinton had taken enormous interpretative liberties and that both stories were later found untrue, she was able to damage Trump’s growing reputation. Trump’s interjecting comments and clarifying questions here and there did little to salvage the situation. Perhaps the wisest reference was the one that involved herself. Clinton happened to be born into a middle-class family, while Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Clinton took advantage of her background, which stood in stark contrast with Trump’s, to convince the audience that she could empathize with their struggles, and thus, should be chosen to represent them. The fact that Clinton, similar to Trump, was also wealthy and had received millions of donations was ignored. She implicitly suggested that unlike Trump, if she was elected, there would be no conflict of interest.
Moreover, Clinton showed up in neat appearance, and maintained her equable, if not sanguine, temperament until the last minute. Trump rarely smiled, if at all; more often than not, his facial expression was tense and strained. When it was Clinton’s turn to speak, he tended to either stare into the camera, or tilt his head to the left, jut out his jaw, and eye Clinton. These looks could be interpreted as ones with nothing but disrespect and despise. Clinton, on the other hand, looked at Trump with a neutral facial expression. Her eyes were naturally big, and they worked to her advantage. No matter how pretentious, it provoked the thought that she was paying attention and respect to Trump. Plus, because of her modest height and the right camera angle, whenever she looked at him, it seemed like she was looking into the future, with hope, dream, and optimism. As Trump constantly made gaffes in interrupting Clinton’s speech and ignoring the moderators’ words, Clinton kept herself together. Her occasional smiles alone expressed her self-confidence. Equally important, her choice of red clothes was also smart. Had she picked blue, her clothes could have blended in to the blue background, and she would have repeated the mistake that Richard Nixon made in the 1960 presidential debate.
Entering the debate, Trump had nothing to lose. He was a businessman, and he was confident that his frankness and business mindset would strengthen the economy of the United States. Clinton, on the other hand, had been engaged in politics for ages, and half of the audience was probably eager to see her commit blunders. Working together with a team of experts, Clinton lived up to the great public expectations. She introduced her coherent policies in a comprehensible way, and soared with optimism. She openly admitted her wrongdoing, and effectively counter-argued Trump. She balanced between being too submissive and too abrasive, which was a difficulty no other presidential candidates had ever faced. She expended considerable efforts to win the debate, and her hard work paid off. On September 26, 2016, Hillary Clinton won the first presidential debate.
Blake, A. and Team Fix. (2016). The first Trump-Clinton presidential debate transcript, annotated. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/09/26/the-first-trump-clinton-presidential-debate-transcript-annotated/