Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Six key takeaways from a presidential debate unlike any before it

Donald Trump speaks as Hillary Clinton listens during the presidential debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York.

Pool/Getty Images

Since 1960, American candidates for the White House have engaged in 31 presidential debates. They have established a set of conventions and a set of expectations that are seldom broken. But in a campaign year that has shattered conventions and expectations, Monday night's debate at New York's Hofstra University left some of those assumptions in tatters.

Manhattan businessman Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engaged in 90 minutes of slogans, talking points, prepared statements and choreographed ripostes. None caught either of the candidates by surprise. But there nonetheless were surprising departures from form Monday night. They included:

One candidate showed mastery, the other passion.

Story continues below advertisement

The difference between mastery and passion has seldom been on display as vividly as it was in the Clinton-Trump debate. Though the 1960 debate was decisive on style points, there was no such mastery-passion gap, for example, between Vice-President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960, the first two participants in a presidential debate.

This matched the personalities and inclinations of the two nominees, but it nonetheless was the striking characteristic of the first of three presidential debates conducted by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

This contrast – evident as early as the very first exchange between the two candidates – also reflected the strategic imperatives of the two candidates. Mr. Trump's surge has been powered on his passion – for jobs, for secure borders, for renegotiating trade agreements, for fighting ISIS – just as Ms. Clinton's rise has been powered on her mastery of the details, dating from her time as the First Lady of Arkansas, when she led a school-reform offensive, and her days as the First Lady in Washington, when she led her husband's attempt to overhaul the American health-care system.

Read more: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clash in first presidential debate

John Doyle: How the most basic rules of television shaped the outcome of the debate

John Ibbitson: Trump as president? No reasonable voter could want that after the debate

One candidate portrayed his rival as a follower, responding to his campaign success and his campaign themes.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Trump repeatedly charged that Ms. Clinton's views, especially on global trade, were shaped in reaction to what he called his "movement." This is an echo of the charge that Ms. Clinton's caucus and primary rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, made in the spring, when she adopted or adapted his views on trade, education, and the environment. Mr. Trump repeatedly charged that Ms. Clinton's views, especially on global trade, were shaped in reaction to what he called his "movement."

The two engaged in a slugfest.

Until Monday night, the American presidential debate was a tepid art form, its memorable ripostes – "There you go again, Mr. President," former Governor Ronald Reagan said to President Carter in 1980, for example – relatively bland, and always delivered in an even tone.

Not so Monday night. As the debate neared its completion, Mr. Trump said, "I have a much better temperament than she does," prompting Ms. Clinton to say that he did not have "the temperament to be president of the United States."

The two interrupted each other repeatedly. They talked over each other. Mr. Trump responded to many of Ms. Clinton's comments with contorted facial movements, and Ms. Clinton responded to Mr. Trump with laughs of derision – glimpses of the candidates that were not available in some earlier debates, when negotiators for the candidates barred reaction shots.

"Donald," she said at one point, "I know you live in your own reality."

Story continues below advertisement

"Typical politician," he said derisively, dismissing a Clinton point.

And so it went. During the course of the debate, Ms. Clinton said she had "a feeling that by the end of the evening I'm going to blamed for everything." He shot back: "Why not?"

The two traded slogans to an unusual extent, underlining that they may not be speaking the same political language.

Mr. Trump spoke of "law and order" – a phrase that dates to the Nixon years, favoured by Republicans and resisted by Democrats. Ms. Clinton spoke of "systematic racism in our criminal-justice system," a phrase favoured by liberals that is anathema to Republicans.

Then there was the "stamina" debate, with Mr. Trump questioning whether Ms. Clinton had the stamina to be commander in chief and with the former chief U.S. diplomat citing her visits to 112 nations, adding, "He can talk to me about stamina."

The expected (the first female nominee, an unusual business nominee) produced an unexpectedly lively set of exchanges.

Ms. Clinton put Mr. Trump on the defensive for his remarks about women. Mr. Trump, the first business nominee since Wendell Willkie ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, derided politicians and said, "It's about time that this country had somebody running that has an idea about money."

The final element, an eternal verity.

Both sides claimed victory, both sides claimed the other fudged the truth, both sides asserted that the debate underlined the rationale for their campaigns. As in every debate, they probably are both right, and wrong.

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

Report an error
About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨