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Trump and Clinton face off in first US presidential debate: experts respond

The first presidential debate was marked by interruptions from Republican nominee Donald Trump. Reuters/Adrees Latif

Trump and Clinton face off in first US presidential debate: experts respond

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have met in the first of three presidential debates as the race to the White House heats up. The at-times-fiery encounter was marked by interruptions by the Republican nominee as the two candidates sparred over economic growth, free trade, race relations and American foreign policy.

The Conversation’s experts from Australia and the US were watching the debate with an eye to key questions. Their responses follow.


Trump the bully or Clinton the baiter?

Nicole Hemmer, Assistant Professor, Miller Center, University of Virginia, and US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

It was a case of Clinton interruptus. Fifty-one times over the 90-minute debate, Trump shouted, interjected and scoffed as Clinton spoke.

Not only did he interrupt three times more than Clinton, but the nature of his interruptions was striking. He seemed unable to contain – or possibly to control – himself, champing to answer every charge she made.

And that seems to have been Clinton’s goal. Throughout the night, she deftly slipped into her answers the kinds of challenges Trump has been unable to resist.

Case in point: in her second answer, she pointed out that Trump didn’t build his fortune from scratch. His father gave him a million-dollar loan, and later a US$14 million inheritance. Clinton then contrasted that with her own father, a drapery maker who “worked really hard”.

The charge ruffled Trump, who brushed off moderator Lester Holt’s next question to defend the “very small loan” his father gave him.

Then Clinton mentioned Trump had cheered on the housing collapse. Trump butted in:

That’s called business, by the way.

That was just the beginning. Every time Clinton mentioned one of his outlandish statements or questioned his business bona fides, Trump unravelled a little more. The impression viewers were left with at the end of the night was a peevish Trump next to a patient Clinton, an image that underscored the wide gulf in the two candidates’ temperaments.

With the first debate at a close, one of the big stories will be about Trump the bully. But the bigger story should be Clinton the baiter.


Trump thrilled his fans, but did he win any new ones?

David Smith, Senior Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy, Academic Director of the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Both sides are probably going to believe their candidate won this debate.

Trump’s consistent refrain was that his great wealth is evidence he “has the right ideas” to bring prosperity to America. His response to Clinton’s accusation that he has paid no income tax was:

It means I’m smart.

When she brought up his 2006 comments that he hoped the housing bubble would collapse so he could make money from it, he shrugged it off as:

That’s called business.

This will thrill his supporters, who agree with his admonition that Clinton and other politicians have failed for decades to prevent the loss of jobs and industries to other countries.

As expected, Clinton was well prepared with answers to policy questions, while also showing a willingness to attack Trump on character grounds.

Clinton’s supporters will welcome the fact that she directly questioned Trump’s business credentials, though they may worry that both candidates spent a long time talking about Trump himself, which always seemed to work in his favour during the Republican debates.

Clinton’s calmness in the face of Trump’s explosive bluster will be evidence to many that she is far better suited to the presidency.

The election may be decided by who can bring out more of their own party’s supporters on the day. Both candidates are historically unpopular and distrusted by many in the electorate. This debate is unlikely to have changed anyone’s mind, but it may give supporters on both sides added motivation.


Trump couldn’t lose, but did Clinton change voters’ minds?

Bryan Cranston, Online Lecturer in Politics, and PhD Candidate in Politics and History, Swinburne University of Technology

The first presidential debate of 2016 promised to be the most watched in history. Viewers were not interested in policy; they tuned in to watch the latest saga of the longest-ever episode of Jerry Springer in the hope of witnessing a metaphorical car crash.

The debate had the potential to change the race, ever so slightly, and Clinton was the only candidate capable of doing this. Trump’s supporters are locked in. No-one is wavering about whether or not they will vote for him. Voters either love him or hate him; his support is unequivocal. There were no votes at stake for Trump in the debate.

Clinton, on the other hand, is trying to appeal to America’s undecided moderates. This group comprises traditional independent voters and newly disenchanted Republicans who are trying to decide whether to vote for her, a third party, or simply stay home on election day.

Unlike Trump, Clinton has votes to win – and lose.

The public is already well aware of Trump’s views and his volatile nature. For the first few minutes he managed to keep it together, but that soon changed as he continually interrupted and talked over Clinton. At times Clinton’s composure did appear to wobble, and – for a moment – it looked like she was going to respond to Trump in kind.

Clinton performed as expected. There was no “You’re no Jack Kennedy” moment, nor did she flop. She followed the mantra of her campaign and played it safe.

Going into the debate, Clinton was viewed by many Americans as being untrustworthy. This is despite Politifact having found that Clinton tells untruths 22% of the time, compared with Trump’s 69%, and that Clinton tells the truth 28% of the time, compared with Trump’s 4%.

What this shows is that public perception of Clinton does not match reality. This debate did nothing to change that.


Clinton outguns Trump on the key policy issues

Kumuda Simpson, Lecturer in International Relations, La Trobe University

I have to admit to being somewhat surprised by the first presidential debate. Clinton performed better than I expected and Trump ended up floundering.

The debate didn’t start well for Clinton. Her description of investment in infrastructure and renewable energy, along with making the wealthiest Americans pay their “fair share” of tax, doesn’t sell as well as Trump’s populist rhetoric about China stealing American jobs.

Yet Trump quickly fell to pieces. On race and foreign policy Clinton didn’t have to work hard to highlight Trump’s deeply contradictory and ignorant positions on key issues such as criminal justice reform, Iran and nuclear proliferation.

Trump’s call to bring back “stop and frisk” policies in response to questions about race relations highlighted once again his deeply troubling attitudes to African-Americans.

When it came to foreign policy Clinton clearly demonstrated her far superior grasp of the issues, as well as her disdain for Trump’s consistent misunderstanding of the Iran nuclear deal and the importance of NATO.

Trump’s claim that the Iran nuclear deal empowered Iran is a fundamental misunderstanding of the last 12 years of US-Iran policy. As Clinton accurately pointed out, the diplomatic deal has stopped Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons capability for at least the next decade, while giving the US and the international community unprecedented access to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Clinton ended the Securing America segment with the warning that words matter. She directly addressed those of us watching the election outside the US, reassuring allies that America would honour its commitments. Once again she highlighted how erratic and dangerous a Trump presidency would be.

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