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First debate: not likely to change very many minds

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Based, apparently, on the quality of airports, Donald Trump said that the United States has become “a third world country.”

I’m going to make the same mistake I always do and say that I doubt last night’s debate changed very many minds, because not much was new.

Donald Trump was obnoxious, incoherent and repeated his Iraq War lie. He tried to bully both Hillary Clinton and moderator Lester Holt, but neither of them acted intimidated. Trump mouthed or actually said “false” and/or “lies” while Clinton talked.

We’re to the point where none of that is new, so I can’t really think why it would damage his presidential prospects at this point, except that it was the new one-on-one-for-90-minutes deal so maybe it plays differently under those circumstances. It was certainly no more outrageous than some of his primary season debate performances and probably a tad less over-the-top than those. He didn’t call Clinton by an insulting nickname last night.

Hillary Clinton kept an even keel, tried a few flashes of humor, went on the attack occasionally, for example when she rattled off some of the things Trump might be hiding by his refusal to release his tax returns. Among those possibilities she mentioned that Trump might have paid no taxes, and added that in the only tax returns he ever released from previous years, he had paid no income taxes. Trump interjected, “That makes me smart.”

Audit excuse and counterattack

Trump, on the matter of hiding his tax filings, continued his excuse that he can’t release them because he is under IRS audit. He retaliated by bringing up her missing emails, but I thought he would have been better off to go after the still-secret transcripts of her highly compensated Wall Street speeches.

Based, apparently, on the quality of airports, Trump said that the United States has become “a third world country.” He also orchestrated the first-ever use, in a presidential debate, of the word “braggadocious,” saying that his company is “great,” his income is “tremendous,” and then asserting that “I say that not in a braggadocious way.”

Clinton also derided Trump’s proposal of tax breaks for businesses and on financial transactions. “I called it Trumped-up trickle down,” she said, a soundbite that had obviously been devised during debate rehearsals, and I feel confident you’ll be hearing it again.

Clinton tried to prick Trump’s self-esteem, by bringing up the fact that he was born rich. She specified that he got started with a $14 million from his father. Trump didn’t care for that, and implied that the loan amount was much smaller.

Clinton scores on policy

If you care about which candidate is able to coherently describe and defend their policy proposals, Clinton outscored Trump by a couple of orders of magnitude, although the policies were nothing new to those who follow the campaign.

I’d give Lester Holt at A- for his performance as moderator. His questions were solid, if conventional. He didn’t press hard enough for specifics when they weren’t offered. There was a lot of speculation about whether Holt would fact-check lies that were repeated. I only heard one, when he questioned Trump about his early support for the Iraq war. Trump repeated his familiar falsehood that he was against it from the beginning, to which Holt said: “The record shows otherwise.”

(On that point, by the way, Trump implied that if anyone would call up Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, Hannity would confirm that he, Trump, had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Trump did not claim to have said it on the air, which could be confirmed if it had happened, nor did he say what evidence Hannity has.)

Holt’s weak spot was the way he allowed Trump to constantly run over time. Someone should figure out how to address this matter for future debates. It just isn’t OK for one candidate to get more time and attention either by interrupting when their opponent has the floor or just by refusing to stop talking when his own time is expired. Holt admonished him several times. Trump blew him off and kept filibustering.

(If the moderators and organizers can’t bring themselves to just shut off someone’s microphone when they are hogging extra time, they should perhaps keep track of the overage and award a comparable amount of time to the violator’s opponent at the end of the debate to even things out.)

The weirdest moment

The weirdest moment, in my view, was early in the debate when Trump, in the middle of one of his early statements, decided he wanted to clear with Clinton how she would like to be referred to. It went:

Trump: Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? [turning to her and asking Clinton whether she wanted to be called “Secretary Clinton,” and when she indicated that that was fine he concluded] Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.

It was some kind of a head game, but I didn’t get what it was supposed to accomplish, Clinton didn’t fluster, and it passed quickly. Trump did not continue to be sweet to Clinton and never again inquired as to her happiness, even though it was very important to him.

The Washington Post put out an instant annotated transcript of the debate.

The New York Times offered an instant fact check.

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 09/27/2016 - 10:03 am.

    That debate was like a car crash,

    I wanted to turn away (did occasionally to watch MNF) but I slowed down and looked any ways. I didn’t see Trump lose his mind and become the wild man that Clinton has claimed, point for Trump. Hillary looked smug but was overall “likable enough” (Obama’s view of her), point Hillary. On policy Hillary doubled down on Obama’s last 8 years and Trump was looking for better trade agreements, lower corporate tax and a tax holiday on overseas money- up to us to decide which is better. On all the racial turmoil in America Hillary wants systemic racism addressed (how do we do that, go to white privilege classes at colleges) and Trump wants the law enforced, you decide.

    Overall if you like all the politically appropriate language you think Hillary won, if you want change and plain talk you think Trump won. I personally didn’t like either and the only winner was Falcons over Saints on Monday Night Football.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 09/27/2016 - 10:30 am.


    Remove these “debates” (not really), from commercial broadcasters and favorite anchor/moderators.

    Put them on PBS only, using “moderators” who have no image to maintain, their own or their employer’s. This suggestion has been made for many years and rejected for just that many. Perhaps we should finally understand these are “shows,” entertainment packages, not proper “debates,” and certainly not “news.”

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2016 - 10:36 am.

    We don’t need a lot of minds

    Clinton doesn’t need a lot of minds, she just needs enough to win the electoral college.

    Neither candidate is likely to win by a landslide and Clinton is weak and flawed candidate. Trump is a train wreck, he’s hasn’t closed the gap because he’s a strong candidate, he’s closed the gap because that’s what happens with Clinton, she starts out with big leads and then loses them.

    I think the best we can hope for is that Clinton will limp into the White House with just enough votes and towards that end last night worked for her. All she has to do is establish that narrow lead and hang onto it.

    I found the debate encouraging because I was afraid Clinton would blow it, she has a tendency to lawyer up when she debates and that alienates voters. She didn’t do that last night, she stayed cool, she stayed composed, and made her point. Trump on the other hand lost it, he lost his cool, lost his focus, and rambled on incoherently for most of the night making one ridiculous claim after another. The question is whether or not he can pull it together for the next two debates but I don’t think he can, he just doesn’t have the intellectual capacity. Like so many American executives he’s mentally lazy and relies on power rather than reason to make his point.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2016 - 10:42 am.

    The thing that actually surprised me-

    Trump made several claims and statements that pretty much reveal and intention to create a criminal regime. As far as I know, no one else has commented on this.

    Several times Trump complained that the US is protecting other countries that aren’t paying us for their protection. Basically he want’t to convert our foreign policy into a world wide protection racket. He claims we should just take stuff like other countries oil when we want to. That’s a war crime. And he wants to establish a police state that stops and frisks citizens unconstitutionally. And all this just scratches the surface.

    I’m surprised Clinton nor anyone else has noticed or commented on this. It’s not just about his dishonesty, his intent may actually be criminal according to our laws. The guy sounds more like Al Capone than Ronald Reagan.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/27/2016 - 01:21 pm.

      Two comments:…it is

      Two comments:

      …it is amusing to contrast his talk about NATO members not paying their way and his comment on how not paying taxes made him smart. Goose should meet gander some dark night….

      (by the way–how is “law and order” to be paid for — maybe the police should check his tax-paying recorde before they respond to his call for help ?)

      And, while I have heard more than a few time how we should have “taken their oil”, I always wonder of how he imagines the process of drilling, extracting and shipping oil actually occurs–a big box of oil laying on the ground stuff to swoop in and take away in a truck or two ?? Doofus, indeed.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2016 - 02:35 pm.

        The oil, my god the oil!

        I’m beginning to wonder if Trump has any original ideas, and the ideas he borrows like magic tax cuts seem to limited to bad ideas.

        As far as the oil goes, Bush’s plan was to just ship it out from the ports. The problem is getting the oil from the wells to the refinery’s and ports requires thousands of miles of pipelines that are notoriously difficult to protect and secure. In the end everyone but Bush ended getting their hands on the oil because those pipelines can’t be controlled. Not to mention the fact that the pipeline infrastructure had actually degraded tremendously. Bush had to pump millions of dollar into the system just get the lines up and running and keep them running.

    • Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 09/27/2016 - 06:27 pm.

      Sounds more like….

      To me, he sounds more like Hitler. Heaven and Goddess help us if he wins.

  5. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 09/27/2016 - 10:51 am.

    Hardly an expert on calling debate outcomes but . . .

    . . . the punditocracy is largely calling the debate for Clinton, and not just on substance, and I agree. The debate won’t change Trump’s base (or Hillary’s) at all, but for those who were truly undecided, it offered a chance to actually look at the two of them side by side. The body language and other factors that Eric cited in a previous column seemed clearly in Clinton’s favor. She seemed half-way human without losing her gravitas. She had gravitas without seeming too robotic. She actually seemed to be enjoying herself when she wasn’t giving Trump the same Mr. Spock-ish “Really?” stare that she gave the Benghazi committee. Trump was rigid when he wasn’t overemphasizing a point, his face rarely cracking anything resembling a smile. Once or twice, she let her cool warm up a bit–not necessarily a bad thing. At other times, she refused to take the bait. For instance, when Trump tried to parlay Holt’s question about his tax returns into the email issue, she just said she’d apologized for her mistake but offered a list of reasons that Trump wouldn’t want his tax returns examined. Then he interrupted to say that not paying taxes “means I’m smart.” Besides zapping himself on that, his obvious lack of preparation allowed her one of her biggest zappers–“You know what else I’m prepared for? I’m prepared to be President.” And throughout the 90 minutes, Trump sniffled . . . and sniffled . . . and sniffled again. Political careers have been destroyed by less.

  6. Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/27/2016 - 11:37 am.

    My hope . . . . .

    My hope is that those who are just now “tuning in” will have seen the two candidates side-by-side last night, and based on his boorish and unacceptable behavior, will conclude that Donald Trump is simply not fit to become President.

    It’s not the “already decided” I’m hoping last night’s debate will influence. Rather, it’s the (almost certainly fairly sizable) portion of the population for whom the election season begins with the onset of the debates.

  7. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/27/2016 - 11:43 am.


    I thought Sec Clinton missed an opportunity to differentiate their proposals when Mr Trump talked about our “3rd world” airports. She’d already talked about infrastructure investment & how to pay for it. Why doesn’t he have a plan to do the same? He complains about the problem, but offers no solutions.

    Same thing on jobs. He complains about all these companies who’ve moved jobs overseas, but his only solution is to somehow stop them from doing it anymore. That, of course, does nothing to stimulate new job growth, or recover jobs already lost. Again, at least Clinton has a plan. Trump only has bluster.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/27/2016 - 12:46 pm.

    Eric is wrong to say that Donald Trump implied that the $14 million loan from his father was less than tha amountt. Trump did not deny that he got a $14 million start in business from his father; he dismissed the $14 million as only a small amount.

    Does anyone think Trump has any idea of how real people live? I mean, a tiny initial loan to get your feet on the ground in business, from Dad?

    Our only hope is that lots of voters tuned in and really listened to the debate. So they could hear the bully and know that for Hillary Clinton to stay calm and composed with a slight smile on her face is not acting smug–it’s staying calm and composed and not frowning or making weird faces (the Trump style), This guy knows how to make money by stiffing lenders and contractors and other small businesses and finagling ways to pay no taxes year after year. But that doesn’t make him appropriate for the office he’s seeking.

  9. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/27/2016 - 01:21 pm.

    Proof Where None Was Needed

    The only reason I had for tuning in to the debate was to watch Trump’s performance. Would he defy the expectations, and come across as presidential timber? Or would he be the same ranting loose cannon he has been for the entire campaign?

    At first, I thought he was keeping it under control. His answers in the first 20 minutes or so were vague, but nothing that was outside the limits of these events. After a time, the polish started to wear off. His answers stopped being answers, and turned into ham-handed efforts to change the conversation to directions he wanted to go. The number of complete sentences decreased, while the frequency of interruptions increased. By the end, his rantings became incomprehensible (I did note how hard it was for him to say he would accept the results of the election even if he lost).

    On the plus side for him, he did not have a complete meltdown.

    BTW, it was improper for him to use the term “Secretary Clinton.” Former cabinet secretaries are addressed by the honorific they used before taking a cabinet post (Dr. Rice, General Powell). The proper term of address for her would have been “Senator Clinton.”

  10. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/27/2016 - 01:36 pm.

    With Nixon we had a President with a hunger for power beyond the Constitution that lead to criminality. It lead to one of the biggest Constitutional crisis in America’s history. It took a long time to get past that crisis

    With Bush 2 we had an belligerant, incurious, complacent and under-equipped President whose term had a major terrorist attack, two of the longest and most-flawed and wasteful wars that have still not ended, a total destabilization of the Middle East and the second worst financial crisis in modern history. We have not yet recovered from those.

    With Trump as President we have a belligerent, ignorant, incurious, under-equipped person who is nakedly greedy for money and power who has repeatedly called for unConstitutional acts.

    How much more warning does America need with respect to its future?

    I regard Trump as a Dutertes/Putin without death-squads (yet).

    • Submitted by joe smith on 09/27/2016 - 02:22 pm.

      It took Ronald Reagan’s brilliance and

      vision for America to get us out of Jimmy Carter and the disaster that was late 1970’s. I have a feeling it will take more than either Trump or Clinton has to get us out of the past 10 years of unlimited Government growth and stagnation of our economy. When you add in our standing in education world wide (35th thank you Education Dept), deteriorating race relations, diminished standing in the world, 19 Trillion in debt, an immigration policy that make no sense, a war on coal, oil, gas, logging and mining hurting us all, drug use up, violent crime increasing in many big cities and the list goes on and on. No wonder 66 to 75% of folks think we are on the wrong track….. Can either Hillary or Trump fix that??

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2016 - 02:38 pm.

      Don’t forget Reagan

      Reagan et al launched a secret illegal war against Nicaragua, let CIA assets run drugs into the country, not to mention the Iran Contra crime.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/27/2016 - 03:22 pm.

        To Be Fair

        Yes, all of that happened on Reagan’s watch. At the same time, we need to remember that the whole administration was shot through with corruption and lawlessness (remember Anne Gorsuch? Rita Lavelle? Samuel Pierce? Ed Meese? Wedtech? Inslaw?).

        • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/27/2016 - 03:49 pm.


          Do you really want to talk about corruption?

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/27/2016 - 05:03 pm.

            Sure, Why Not?

            By January of 1988, 138 Reagan administration officials had been convicted, had been indicted, or had been the subject of official investigations for official misconduct and/or criminal violations.

            The Clinton administration had 61 investigations or indictments. The pornographic opera bouffe that was supposed to make Ken Starr a right-wing legal hero managed to result in an impeachment without a conviction.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 09/27/2016 - 04:28 pm.

        Reagan wasn’t perfect either

        he grew Government too. For those of us who were in the workforce the difference between 79-80 and 82-83 was beyond night and day. So many of my friends and relatives did well and for that reason alone, Reagan will be my favorite President.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/27/2016 - 10:25 pm.


          The difference between 2007-08 and 2015-16 for my friends and family was also night and day, but I don’t suppose you’ll give our sitting President the same credit. Hence the foolishness of basing one’s worldview on personal anecdotal experience. I wonder how some folks would choose, presented with the option of modest success personally with widespread societal gain vs. extreme personal gain at the cost of societal ruin. Really the rhetorical debate in a nutshell.

        • Submitted by Jim Million on 10/09/2016 - 11:36 am.

          Was there, too

          A significant difference of eras is simply this: Paul Volcker had been running the Fed when the Reagan team moved into the White House. Volcker was trying to desperately write new econometric models (not divulged) to resolve the unknown consequences of the earlier OPEC price shock to our economy. What the Reagan people did was finally kick Paul in the behind to bring main street realities to the ivory tower: “Get those interest rates down!!” or some plain speak near to that. No economist was required for that decree.

          The Big Banks then rode the recovery into their ultimate late ’90s victory: the abolition of Glass-Steagall. Yes, that was truly the CitiBank era. Although Bill Clinton firmly denied these associations as recently as 2015, they truly were foundational, if not principally causal, to the ’08 cataclysmic events (yes, they truly were).

          The 2008 crash was well in emergency room hands by early October, with all hands called in for double shifts. In fact, the Bush/Obama transition team was reported at the time to be the largest known to American history, well over 200 team mates, as I recall. The auto bailout for Chrysler was well under consideration by early December of 2008, when GM quietly arrived at the White House to privately say “Us, too.” That was the critical incident that galvanized successfully managed coordination into the January Inaugural Parade.

          No President is cause or savior in such times. The events of the ’80s are not so similar to those of the ’00s to make Reagan/Bush 2/Obama arguments. I prefer to review what an incoming administration does/doesn’t do with the realities, especially when so studied as they were in Fall of 2008.

          PS: FDR’s recovery was sliding backward toward recession in 1937, after historically quasi-autocratic majority since 1933. These are cycles that must be anticipated and brilliantly modulated to avoid times like 1978 and 2008 (and perhaps 2017-18 or the next whenever depending on Europe).

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/27/2016 - 02:05 pm.

    No guarantee

    There are no guarantees about this sort of thing, but last night was the first time I’ve heard either of the candidates speak at length – assuming that we agree that 2 minutes (or more, in some instances) qualifies as “length.” So, it was interesting to watch and listen to the people running for the presidency when all I’d heard or seen previously were the usual sound bytes from the 5 o’clock news on TV. For me, at least, seeing and hearing them speak in real time is rather different from reading what they’ve said on a printed or electronic page.

    Of the two, one candidate left me with the impression that they might – once again, no guarantee – make a decent chief executive. The other left me appalled.

    It doesn’t matter to me who “won” the faux-debate. It does matter to me who might be the next occupant of the Oval Office, and on that basis, flawed though she might be (we’re all flawed to some degree), Hillary Clinton seems eminently qualified by temperament and experience to hold the position, and that conclusion was, for me, confirmed in last night’s TV performance. Donald Trump revealed himself to be the quintessential 4th or 5th-grade schoolyard bully, grown older and larger, but no more mature, and seems qualified for government service (i.e., serving the public) at neither the federal nor state levels, nor even at the local level. I’ve encountered people very much like him (though not as arrogantly nouveau-riche) on city councils and county commissions, and the gentlest terms I can use to describe those people, Trump included, are “arrogant and unpleasant.”

    My own fervent hope is that Mr. Trump descends into a well-deserved oblivion…

  12. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/27/2016 - 03:11 pm.

    It is so hard to believe approximately half the country thinks Trump is capable of fixing and/or running anything. So far he thinks it is good not to pay taxes and he celebrates when the housing market crashes because it is good for his business. How can anyone think he would lookout for anyone but himself. All anyone has to do to get the better of Trump is get under his skin and he is off and running to a world of incoherence. I’m sure world leaders can’t believe Trump is what the Republican Party put forth as their presidential candidate.

    In the spin room according to Trump Lester Holt did a good job next morning Lester did a poor job. According to Trump he had a bad mic. I assure him we all heard him fall apart under pressure, his microphone worked perfectly.

    The VP debate will be really good. Pence is so far out of his comfort zone and skill set he too will be a disaster. Pence is unable to justify Trump’s comments in many cases because he know it is pure nonsense. I’m sure if Pence had the chance to answer yes or no on being a VP candidate his answer would be NO. I think Pence has killed his future political career. Kaine is articulate and on the same page as Hillary vs Trump and Pence who not even in the same book.

  13. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/27/2016 - 04:21 pm.

    I’m looking forward to tonight’s Frontline (8:00)

    …as their explorations seem even-handed and they go to lengths discovering real facts as opposed to the so-called “facts” of this campaign, which are mostly tortured interpretations or opinions.

    Last night’s “debate” cast no new light on anything, a waste of otherwise good electrons. If Frontline punts and descends to the level of this campaign, I’ll throw in the towel.

  14. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/27/2016 - 09:51 pm.

    Mr. Trump obviously

    Has not debated one person before and it showed. While Senator Clinton constantly checked her notes I ‘m not sure that Mr. Trump even brought any. He missed a huge softball when the term IRS came up. The same people who audited a handful of other conservatives under orders from superiors? And another softball when Senator Clinton mentioned that his tax plan would raise the national debt $5 trillion over the next ten years. President Obama would kill to have raised the debt so little.

    I am waiting for an answer to “$20 trillion in debt and what do we have to show for it?” Crumbling roads and bridges, bad airports, blah, blah, blah. It is kind of scary though when you think about it.

  15. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/29/2016 - 02:45 pm.

    But, how dangerous it is for Trump to suggest that we force those who buy our national debt–in government bonds–to “take a haircut,” as he has forced numerous banks and lenders to take only five or ten cents on the dollar of debt he owes them. He actually has no idea of the international turmoil, or national crisis, that would probably ensue his mere mention of the U.S. not paying the full debt. To China, in great part!

    Hillary Clinton understands this.

    That’s why she asks that we look more carefully into all the Trump bluster about what a Great Businessman he is! He skimmed his profits off the top then stiffed his contractors (“It will cost you more to sue me than just to eat your loss!”) or declared bankruptcy. Six times. And used public subsidies for his projects.

    A further note: Someone who is constantly audited by the IRS has been shown in the past to play tricks with their persona income taxes and has probably had to pay up unpaid taxes, with interest, after one audit and another and another. Once they know your habits, they keep close tabs on you. That’s Trump. And that’s why he doesn’t want any of us to see his tax returns. Even for the years that are long-since past audit stage!

    Please, people, get real with this guy’s empty claims.

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