What we learned (and didn't learn) in last night's debate

America asked some of our editors and frequent contributors to reflect on the first presidential debate on 2016. Additional contributions will be posted during the day on Tuesday.  

Clinton talks about the common good, Trump touts change

In a debate that got bogged down on issues of “temperament” and devoted little attention to poverty or economic inequality, Hillary Clinton made some attempts at arguing for the common good. When Donald J. Trump essentially bragged about paying as little in taxes as possible (“That makes me smart”), Mrs. Clinton pointed out that he was bragging about not contributing to the salaries of teachers, firefighters and other public servants. She slammed him for being “one of the ones who rooted for the housing crisis” that hurt millions of families (Mr. Trump: “That’s called business”). Mrs. Clinton also decried the private prison industry (“We shouldn't have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans”), an issue on which Mr. Trump kept silent.

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It is a theme that fits her “Better Together” slogan, but it was still an underdeveloped argument, and we do not know if she will pursue it further in the other debates. Mr. Trump stuck to his contention that the times call for someone ruthless in charge, and that people looking out for themselves is what makes America great. He returned to the Republican trope that “regulation” is strangling free enterprise, and his defense of the discredited practice of “stop and frisk”—New York police searching pedestrians (disproportionately young black and Latino men) without cause—sacrificed fairness for the comfort of his primarily white suburban supporters.

Where Mrs. Clinton came up short was, as usual, in articulating what message people would be sending if they vote for her. Moderator Lester Holt opened the debate with the un-fact-checkable claim that “Nearly half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck,” and we did not come away with a sense of what Mrs. Clinton would say to those voters. Is she saying “stay the course,” that the economic recovery is slow but steady and policies like Obamacare are introducing more long-term security for families? Or is she saying that the Obama administration did the job of pulling us out of crisis but it is time to change direction, to address economic inequality and the disappearance of jobs for those without college degrees (the Bernie Sanders argument)?

Mr. Trump keeps focusing on those Americans worried about their economic futures and saying they have nothing to lose by voting for him and their gamble might pay off. Mrs. Clinton still seems at a loss when addressing the voters between the coasts left behind by the new economy.

For most people, casting a vote in a presidential election is one of the few times they have a say in public policy. In zeroing in on Mr. Trump’s lack of qualifications and dubious temperament, Mrs. Clinton comes close to saying there is no choice this year, that voters who feel the country is off-track will have to wait eight years this time (from 2012 to 2020) if they want to send a message of change. That could backfire with a lot of voters who identify with Donald Trump’s undisciplined anger and exasperation.

Robert David Sullivan is an associate editor of America.

Who looked the part?

The conventional wisdom is that presidential debates don’t matter much. In the presidential election of 2016, however, the conventional wisdom is on life support. Everything that was not supposed to have happened has now come to pass. So if the polls move in a definite and unprecedented direction in the wake of this first debate, I wouldn’t be surprised.

And if the numbers do move, they’re likely to move in Mrs. Clinton’s favor. For what voters look for in these debates is largely visceral: Who looks like a president? Who sounds like a president? It is about image to be sure, but it’s more than mere optics. We are hiring our commander in chief and our ambassador to the world. Can we see this man or woman inspecting our troops or meeting heads of state? Would we feel reassured to see this person behind the oval office desk in a moment of crisis? Regardless of whether you think her policies are better or worse than those of Mr. Trump, Hillary Clinton looked more like a president last night. It felt that way too.

Matt Malone, S.J., is the editor in chief of America.

Critical questions for Catholic voters

What was missing last night?

In 90 minutes, we heard Donald J. Trump talk defensively about not releasing his taxes and his peddling of the “birther” lie. We heard Mr. Trump use racial and gender code words like “law and order” and the “stamina” of the first female nominee for president. We heard Hillary Clinton talk defensively of her past support for trade deals and avoid talking about her emails. We heard Mrs. Clinton talk knowledgeably about foreign policy but not personally about her vision or hopes. Both candidates talked about “temperament,” but what we saw was more revealing than what they said. I leave to the reader to assess who is more honest, prepared, knowledgeable and capable of leading in a divided nation and dangerous world.

We did not hear much if anything about crucial questions for Catholic voters who take their faith seriously. The poor and vulnerable were missing in Lester Holt’s questions and in the candidates’ priorities and policies. There was no talk of the lives of unborn children or the dignity of undocumented workers, no real discussion of overcoming poverty or welcoming refugees. While there was some discussion of the racial divide in our nation, they did not even debate the human and moral consequences of the “wall” or a ban on refugees fleeing violence. There was some talk about jobs and the middle class, but little focus on those left behind in our economy and nation.

It has only been a year since Pope Francis left our nation with his call to protect the “least of these,” but it seems like his message—and our priorities—were missing last night.  

John Carr is the Washington Front columnist for America and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

Politics is still a spectator sport

The latest spectacle of this Election Spectacular has come and gone. And as enthralling as all the drama and reversals and zig-zagging polls have been, and despite the likely record-breaking ratings, it is not clear that actual democracy, and actual participation, as Catholic social teaching understands it, is coming out ahead. I worry that we are slipping, big time.

Debate-watching means enduring an hour and a half of barbs hurled between two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in our history. Third-party candidates, despite making significant inroads in the polls and representing popular viewpoints, had no spot on the stage. The showdown between these two not-especially-articulate egos gobbles up our attention economy, leaving only scraps for critically important local races, ballot initiatives and school boards—to say nothing of organizing in our workplaces and neighborhoods. The political exercise in which we each have almost no say, and which represents us the least, demands a monopoly on our attention.

We can watch the debate, and participate in Talmudic commentary, through Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and (almost) a zillion other corporate platforms; being able to converse throughout is, I find, a welcome release, a gratifying simulacrum for having a voice. Meanwhile, in countries that did not invent the internet (as Donald Trump incorrectly stated the United States did in his astonishing display of digital ignorance, rivaling only Hillary Clinton's history of the same), debates are getting much more interesting. A new report by Civic Hall documents some of the ways that younger democracies are using online tools to bring more citizens' voices into the process of political debates. And in Taiwan, this extends beyond debates, into governance itself.

Ratings are not a sign that we're participating, they are a sign that we're watching—waiting and seeing, polling and awaiting the chance for our long-awaited vote. What, in so doing, do we neglect?

Nathan Schneider is the author of Thank You, Anarchy and God in Proof. Website: nathanschneider.info. Twitter: @ntnsndr.

Some foreign policy surprises

In the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, our first woman presidential candidate was calm, poised and measured. As the debate wore on, Mr. Trump seemed increasingly incoherent. But though Mrs. Clinton clearly had the better debate and delivered some telling criticisms of her opponent—on his refusal to release his tax returns, for one—the debate was not a complete rout. Mr. Trump spoke eloquently about trade and the loss of American jobs to markets overseas. His solutions are questionable, but his description of the problem was vivid and effective.

As expected, national security was a focus. In the past, Mr. Trump has talked loosely about both the use of nuclear weapons and their proliferation. Last night, he offered some verbal reassurance that he understood their seriousness, calling nuclear weapons the single greatest threat to the United States. He even foreswore the first use of nuclear weapons, something no U.S. president has done. Did he realize the significance of what he said? Would he maintain that stance in the face of opposition from the military and foreign policy establishment? If the United States did publicly disavow the first-strike use of nuclear weapons—something President Obama recently considered and rejected—that would be a major change, one the world would regard as a step forward for peace. In the days to come, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Trump walks back from that position. It seems likely that he will.

There was also much discussion of ISIS. Mr. Trump said Mrs. Clinton and President Obama were responsible for creating ISIS by withdrawing U.S. soldiers from Iraq and creating a power vacuum. Mrs. Clinton pointed out that the withdrawal of U.S. troops had been arranged by President George W. Bush after Iraqi leaders refused to provide immunity to U.S. troops. Mr. Trump attacked her for putting her plan to defeat ISIS on her website. She said the secret of his secret plan to deal with ISIS was that there was no plan.

Hillary Clinton’s own strategy to deal with ISIS seems a continuance of what exists now—a reliance on military measures as well as what she said would be new efforts to prevent ISIS from having access to the internet.

“I think we need to do much more with our tech companies to prevent ISIS and their operatives from being able to use the internet to radicalize, even direct people in our country and Europe and elsewhere,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Her plan to get technology companies to patrol the internet will not sit well with free speech advocates, but increased surveillance and reductions in Americans’ civil liberties and freedoms have become standard operating procedures. Mr. Trump, in one of those unguarded moments of honesty that makes his candidacy fascinating to watch, said: “The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable.”

Their statements on national security reinforced the image already held of them: that Mrs. Clinton will maintain the status quo and that Mr. Trump is more of an isolationist—one who is erratic, unpredictable and inconsistent.

Margot Patterson is a writer who lives in Kansas City, Mo.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year ago
We get that America Magazine supports Mrs Secretary Clinton, and that's all right. But do you have to produce a commentary that reads like Democratic Party Talking Points? Why not spill real ink on the issues that affect us all and are dear to Catholics? Things like Peace. Like Experimentation on Babies having 3 or more DNA Parents, there are lots of issues that need discussion and there are several more debates upcoming, what a waste of ink. Just my opinion, in Christ,
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year ago
Debate moderator Lester Holt opened the debate with “Nearly half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.” If correct, then at least half of Americans likely don’t have the money to pay the $3 billion annual cost of 10,000 DC lobbyists. The same goes for the $3 billion spent every two years on congressional elections and the $3 billion spent every four years on presidential elections. Corporations with deep pockets and the 400 richest Americans with their $¼ billion average incomes could scrape together $3 billion for lobbyists. Half of America perhaps has been left behind because of lobbyists strangling democracy. https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/ https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php
William deHaas
1 year ago
Mr. Sullivan - not sure what you exactly were looking for in terms of specificity to addressing inequality. Clinton has detailed her plans on this; has repeatedly highlighted various issues e.g. college tuition; childcare; jobs training; infrastructure jobs; making sure that future trade agreements include skills training and union protection, etc. Your statement - "Where Mrs. Clinton came up short was, as usual, in articulating what message people would be sending if they vote for her." - really makes little sense in context or when examined. It is NOT about *what message people will be sending when they vote* - geez.......in some sense, recently released data indicates that more folks have escaped poverty levels than in 30 years and that real wage growth has happened by a larger percentage than in 20 years. So, maintaining the current policies, etc. makes sense and that includes regulation, clean energy, consumer protection; tracking Wall Street, etc. Sorry, your complaint does not make sense when compared to the Donald. John Carr - not sure that the forum last nite was really structured to meet your goal -is this even a good goal? I want the most qualified person to lead our country; it is not a question of what denomination, sect; etc. Clinton talked about many catholic values - it requires an adult to make the connection between her policies proposals and her values e.g. she spoke clearly about racism, climate change; fair trade agreements; alliances that support world peace; support for women, children, families. Guess you weren't listening.
Lenora Grimaud
1 year ago
AMERICAN PRESIDENTS: There is no such thing as a perfect “American President.” Every President that America has had has been flawed. They all had their own individual strengths and weaknesses, vices and virtues, talents and skills. Some were very charismatic; some were very knowledgeable. They all had to meet certain criteria in order to be endorsed as a candidate. They were all elected by the people and for the people. They were not elected because of their religion, gender, color, race, or creed. They were not born into the office. They did not take the office by violence or force. They did not become President by default; because they destroyed or eliminated their competition. They were elected because they represented what America needed most in a leader at the time. They were elected because their plan of leadership and plan for America was the plan most needed for the good of the American people; to protect, defend, and prosper America and her people. They were elected because of what they had to offer. They were elected to serve the people, not to govern them; to provide what was best for the people; to unify and unite the people; to maintain the freedom and Constitution of America; to maintain law and order, peace and prosperity. Presidents of America cannot become President by default; by demonizing their opponents or destroying their dignity as a human person. That is psychological assassination. If they did, America would really in trouble. The Presidents would no longer be elected by the People, and America would no longer be a Democratic Republic. America would be a dictatorship. When the majority of the people do not like either candidate, or the plan they propose, something is wrong! In this coming Election, I believe that Americans need to resist the temptation to choose a leader based on temperament or personality. We need to ask ourselves: What do we want for America? What does America need most in this moment of time? Should we “stay the course?” Or, should we “make a change.” I believe that America is on a road to destruction, and that we need to repent (turn around) and take another road that leads back to “one nation under God.” We need to look at the “signs of the times.”
Mike Evans
1 year ago
No Lenora, Mr. Bush was not elected because he had special gifts which attracted voters. He in fact turned out to be the fumbling, bumbling, deer caught in the headlights leader that many knew he was before. His entire legacy was an unnecessary war and a financial sector meltdown that crippled the entire world economy. Thankfully, he intends to stay mostly silent in the current campaign of Trump. "I'm not getting into that swamp again," he has said.
Mike Evans
1 year ago
Mr. Trump indicated we (the USA) seem to have no responsibility to anyone in the rest of the world, including our traditional allies, and little or no concern for people at home who rely upon government programs for their very survival. He is ignorant about the need for social services, welfare, unemployment, disabilities and food insecurity. In fact some of those topics are completely out of his grasp. He remains misogynistic, anti-immigrant, full of "trust me" assurances instead of program or policy details, and favors existing corporate and individuals among the 1% highest earners and most wealthy. His stuttering inability to express anything in a complete and articulate way make it a certainty that he is unsuited for either national or international leadership.

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