CNN commentators and guest analysts offer their take on Monday night’s presidential candidate debate. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.
David Gergen: Clinton crushed Trump, but was that enough?
Coming into the presidential debate, I thought that if Hillary Clinton won decisively, she would virtually lock up the election. Coming out, it was clear that she did win decisively but I suspect that the campaign will remain ferociously close.
By all traditional standards of debate, Mrs. Clinton crushed. She carefully marshaled her arguments and facts and then sent them into battle with a smile. She rolled out a long list of indictments against Donald Trump, often damaging. By contrast, he came in unprepared, had nothing fresh to say, and increasingly gave way to rants. As the evening ended, the media buried him in criticisms.
Even so, I doubt she has put him away. For one thing, Trump supporters aren’t judging him by traditional standards. They have heard establishment politicians over-promise and under-deliver for so long that they crave something different. They were quick last night to see yet more signs of media bias. Trump was an angry figure, yes, but he is also giving voice to their anger. Those who are for him are likely to stick, despite his ineffectual performance.
Equally to the point, Mrs. Clinton seemingly struggled in the debate to create closer emotional bonds with voters. She has been vexed with the issue of likeability throughout this campaign and in recent months her team has become concerned about her ability to mobilize millennials in the way that Barack Obama did so successfully. Her arguments last night should have made voters think, but I am not sure they will make them march.
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Hillary did lock up the race Monday night. Trump certainly blew it. But I imagine the race goes on, and the ultimate decision will be left where it should be: with the voters. Stay tuned for the vice presidential debate next Tuesday!
David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
S.E. Cupp: Trump (mostly) did the job
I had two criteria upon which I would judge Monday night’s debate. Not “who looked more presidential,” or “who fact-checked whom the best.” Those aspects go to their bases, not the voters who will determine this election outcome: undecideds.
Hillary Clinton had one job. She had to make Donald Trump look dumb. For undecideds, it will matter less that he’s a bully or a liar. She has issues with trust, too. What will scare them is how unprepared he is. Every chance she gets to point this out has the potential to add points. Unfortunately for Clinton, she didn’t take many of them. While she pointed out that his “cavalier attitude” toward nuclear weapons was dangerous, time and again, she punted at opportunities to point out how ill-informed and unprepared Trump is. Instead, she preferred to argue his vague platform on its merits. For her, this wasn’t damaging, but it didn’t move the needle in her favor.
In contrast, Trump mostly did the job he had to do. To move undecideds, he had to hammer one point home: Clinton is a politician who doesn’t get it. Over and over again, he attacked her as more of the same, out of touch, and a politician who hasn’t gotten it right. He didn’t go after her character or personal issues, for the most part – which voters know well. She outmanned him on specifics and details. But his attacks were far more effective than hers.
While Clinton was right to suggest the fact-checkers get busy on his statements – many were misleading – if I’m looking at who moved the needle tonight with voters, it was Trump, not Clinton. And, Robby Mook, I assure you, this anti-Trump conservative isn’t grading him “on a curve.”
S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News.
Errol Louis: Where Clinton damaged Trump
Hillary Clinton did her homework on Donald Trump in the week leading up to tonight’s debate, and the prep work paid off, especially when it came to his business record.
The former secretary of state needled the Donald’s business record, hitting on well-reported incidents and turning his claim to fame against him. She brought up his handful of bankruptcies, allegations that he’s stiffed workers, his pining for the housing crisis for his own benefit and his aversion to releasing his perpetually under-audit tax returns.
“It must be something really important, even terrible, that he’s trying to hide,” Clinton said of Trump’s tax returns, turning the tables on allegations that she’s hiding something in her deleted emails. “It just seems to me that this is something the American people deserve to see.”
Clinton even took a step further and pointed out that Trump didn’t pay any income tax returns in certain years, a strategy designed to chip away at the blue-collar demographic that he’s cultivated in the last few years. Trump, who’s worked up a populist campaign saying that the government has stiffed the little guy, put his own foot in his mouth, butted in and said “that makes me smart.”
Clinton came into the night neck-and-neck with Trump in key states like Colorado and Pennsylvania, needing to weaken her Republican opponent on some of the things that have made him strong. It’s a strategy her campaign has taken since July, when it rolled out an architect who claimed Trump shortchanged him over work at a golf course. (To twist the knife in his side, Clinton noted that the architect was in the audience tonight.)
It was a tough attack to which Trump will need an answer in future debates.
Mel Robbins: Hillary Clinton got bad advice
As a Clinton supporter, it pains me to say Trump won.
Clinton was too restrained, too smart – and as much as I hate to say it – she was too presidential. And being presidential won’t help her win the election. She spoke to the intellectuals tuning in; she did not speak to the average American.
Her advisers told her to restrain from attacking Trump. She got the wrong counsel and it could cost her the election.
Her rebuttal to Trump’s incoherent rants was to chuckle and tell viewers to check in with the fact checkers. The fact checkers won’t win the election for her.
She needed to take him out at the knees. We know Clinton is smart, what we needed to see was a woman who is tough and won’t take nonsense from anyone. She failed to do that tonight. Tonight, she was nice. Nice won’t win the presidency.
Donald spent the night sniffing constantly before he spoke. To paraphrase one tweeter: He’s allergic to his own crap.
He lost the 400-pound vote but he won the debate and unless Clinton changes tactics he’s going to win the election.
Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator, legal analyst, best-selling author and keynote speaker. In 2014, she was named outstanding news talk-radio host by the Gracie Awards.
Tara Setmayer: Trump kept taking the bait
As a real estate mogul, Donald Trump is more than familiar with the expression “location, location, location.” In presidential debates, it’s temperament, temperament, temperament. History has not been kind to Dan Quayle’s perceived weakness, George H. W. Bush’s time check or Al Gore’s sighs. And it won’t be kind to Trump’s undisciplined, defensive rants.
Trump’s debate performance was a combined rehash of the insolence of his primary debates, the rambling hyperbole of his rallies, with a sprinkle of detail to bolster his message of economic populism. Although Trump scored points on that issue, he whiffed badly when confronted about his failure to release his taxes and struck out on the issues of race, birtherism and foreign policy. It was, frankly, surprising how easily Trump took Hillary’s bait.
Coming into Monday night’s debate, national polls were essentially tied and battleground states were tightening. With expectations set historically low, all Trump had to do was behave well enough to convince undecided voters he was in fact fit to hold the highest office in the land. In order to win the White House, Trump needs more moderates, minorities and women to support him. Yet he engaged in juvenile attacks on Hillary’s looks and stamina instead of her failed record. Trump had an opportunity to put Hillary Clinton away and failed miserably. He is who is he is and continues to act unworthy of the office.
Tara Setmayer is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and a CNN political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.
Frida Ghitis: How Clinton unmasked Trump
Hillary Clinton was the closer. She pulled off a victory, but only after Trump looked as if he might run away with that victory in the first half of the debate. Clinton was clearly in command of the facts, but Trump was making the simpler – if highly inaccurate – case for defending American jobs. Substance aside, he initially came across as caring about those who have lost jobs to trade. But Trump’s initial strength unraveled as the debate progressed.
By the time it was over, Clinton unmasked Trump as a con man over his failure to release tax returns and penchant for not paying his workers. He all but acknowledged he doesn’t pay taxes, saying “they would be wasted,” seeming more like an abusive one-percenter than a man of the people. His birther explanation made no sense, and his claim that Hillary has been “fighting ISIS your entire life,” was as ridiculous as his notion of stealing Iraq’s oil. His denial of the well-established fact that he supported the Iraq war was a most awkward dance.
Clinton’s decision to address America’s allies, reassuring them that the United States will abide by its treaty obligations, was a brilliant touch, a reminder that she was the true adult on the stage, particularly after highlighting Trump’s “cavalier” claims, which he has made, that other countries should arm themselves with nuclear weapons. First set was Trump’s. But Hillary handily won the match.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis.
Tim Stanley: A technical win for Trump
That was probably the first and last debate in presidential history to include a discussion of Rosie O’Donnell’s looks. As such, it was tremendous entertainment – pure reality TV. But it was also very hard to pick a winner. Donald Trump won on the basis of spectacle. Hillary Clinton’s strategy was to rise above the occasion and let him talk himself into losing. That actually allowed Trump to land one blow after another without Clinton fighting back. She wittily put him down a couple of times. But mostly she just smiled oddly at the camera. She was, to use a Trumpism, low energy. That was a mistake.
Yes, Trump sunk to new lows when discussing the birther issue – claiming that he helped put it to rest when he actually stirred it up. Yes, he was barely coherent on defense, taxes etc. There was a three-minute section when he detailed a phone call with Sean Hannity about Iraq. Yes, The Donald was low on specifics, too. But he did have clear themes that he rammed home. After 90 grueling minutes, I looked down at my pad and read back the key words that I’d jotted down. “Law and order.” “Country doing badly.” “Bad experience.” “Emails.” Clinton’s policies on solar panels and equal pay did not cut through. It could not compete with his passion, his articulation of populist anger.
So I give this a technical win to Trump because he understood the format, he blew it apart, and he dominated the evening. But that will alienate as many people as it will attract. Moreover, I’m not even sure it’ll make that big a difference. Objectively deducing who won or lost is almost impossible when partisan tensions are this high. Most viewers either agree with him or with her. And a small minority watched it and thought, “How the hell did things come to this?” The debate will likely harden impressions, not soften hearts. The impression is that Trump has matured into an effective champion of the working class. But Clinton looks like a president-in-waiting.
Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.”
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Roxanne Jones: Note to Trump: Talking loud a losing strategy
Out of control. That’s how I’d describe the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. What a train wreck for any voter who wanted to hear details about policy. Instead, we got Trump shouting insults and one-liners, interrupting Clinton, trying to take over the conversation. Shockingly, Trump admitting to the world: He was “smart” not to pay his federal income taxes; he supported a return of “stop and frisk” policing, even though it was ruled racial profiling and unconstitutional by the courts; and he defended his family’s housing discrimination practices against blacks and Latinos, essentially saying it was just something everyone did back then.
Clinton’s sit-back-and-watch-him-implode strategy was frustrating at times but it worked. She could, however, show more passion when discussing her policies. On the issue of race, Clinton missed a perfect opportunity to talk more about her plan for law enforcement reforms and systematic racism in our justice system. Still for me, Trump lost the debate tonight. Talking loud and saying little shouldn’t be a path to the White House.
Score One for Clinton.
Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events, is a co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” and CEO of the Push Marketing. She supports Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
Julian Zelizer: Debate unlikely to have dramatic impact
Overall, it is unclear that Monday night’s debate will have a huge impact on the direction of the polls. The best moments for Donald Trump came in the first half hour, where he baited her into defending unpopular free trade deals.
There were many reasons that Hillary Clinton supporters could be pleased with her performance. At several points, Trump was irritated and angry. He delved into some of his more controversial claims. He referred to Sean Hannity as evidence to support his claims about the Iraq War.
Clinton consistently appeared poised and attacked with methodical precision. The most effective part of Clinton’s attacks was to connect him to a kind of trickle-down economics and raise questions about his business record. Clinton’s best moments came when she attacked him on birtherism. In the final half hour, Trump was mired deep in his Trumpian statements about women’s looks and more.
But Clinton’s greatest advantage remains the dynamics of the Electoral College and the continued doubts about his capacity to be president. It is very hard for a single debate to change the game. And it is unclear that this debate had the kind of dramatic moment that will fundamentally reshape public opinion – overwhelming all of the other factors that have caused her lead to shrink. The most unfavorable moments for Trump are not worse than anything he’s done before – and those moments have not undercut his campaign thus far.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.”
Haroon Moghul: Trump lost, but so did all of us
Near the end of Monday night’s debate, Hillary Clinton looked straight into the camera to address America’s allies. She wanted our friends and partners in NATO, and allies like Japan, South Korea, and others to know that we meant to honor our obligations. In that moment, Donald Trump entirely disappeared, and Clinton no longer looked like a candidate for President. She sounded like she was already President.
Trump? He managed to incorporate his very large portfolio into nearly every comment he made. Eventually I expected him to announce he knew best how to defeat ISIS because he built a hotel in Mosul. So, yes, Trump lost. But we lost, too. All of us, as Americans. It’s a disaster for any democracy when there is only one responsible candidate running for office, let alone the highest in any land.
Trump’s language over the campaign has been racist and authoritarian; he has indulged anti-Semites and winked at white supremacists when he was not busy with plans for mass deportations or Islamophobic bans. It’s not a good thing that 100 million people are watching these two candidates debate, because 100 million people shouldn’t take a would-be fascist seriously enough to debate his case for the White House.
One of my favorite new shows is Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Unfortunately, we’re the ones living in the upside down.
Haroon Moghul is a senior fellow and director of development at the Center for Global Policy. His next book, “How to be a Muslim,” will be out in 2017.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Clinton won hands down
Civility went south fast in Monday’s debate. Donald Trump lost his composure early, ranting, interrupting (over 20 times) and sniffing. (Under the weather, or out of his comfort zone?) Hillary Clinton started out soft, playing the grandmother card, but quickly escalated to tough talk and occasional sarcasm. It could hardly have gone otherwise. Clinton hit hard at Trump, bringing up his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his “long record of engaging in racist behavior,” his denial at having supported the Iraq war, and his refusal to allow the American people to see his tax returns.
In doing so, Clinton did Americans a big favor: she revealed Trump’s limitations. He is simply unable to make those leaps of imagination and generosity necessary to transform from a businessperson to a national political leader. The candidate who claims to do everything big showed the smallness of his thinking tonight. With his off-key rejoinders, he demonstrated repeatedly how he sees everything – people, properties, cities, and entire countries – in terms of how they factor into his business and personal universe, which seem to be one and the same. I’ll get to Pennsylvania Avenue one way or another, he said tonight, as though the White House and his new Trump hotel are entities of equal importance. Perhaps they really are, in his mind.
Clinton alone demonstrated the composure, wisdom, and broad vision necessary for executive office. She won the debate hands down.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, a specialist in 20th-century European history and a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion. Her latest book is “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema.” She supports Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
Raul Reyes: A sad night for ‘Sniffles’
The reality TV star and businessman who loves giving nicknames earned himself one tonight: “Sniffles.” From the beginning through the end of the first debate Donald Trump seemed to have something going on with his sinuses. It seemed a fitting metaphor for a night on which the usual expert showman was seriously off his game. Besides the sniffles, Trump made faces and sighed. He scowled. He interrupted. He took innumerable drinks of water, something for which he used to mock Marco Rubio.
In so doing, Trump lost this debate to a clearly up-to-the-task Hillary Clinton. Either Trump failed to prepare, or his prep sessions did not stick.
This is a debate that will likely be studied in college communications, advertising, and gender courses for years to come. Without the benefit of a live audience cheering his one-liners, Trump seemed deflated and not on his best form at all. His constant interruptions of Clinton will do him no favors with women voters. His bragging, in effect, about forcing President Barack Obama to produce his birth certificate will not go over well with black voters. And his rambling answers at times descended into incoherence. In response to a question about cybersecurity, he mentioned that cyberattacks could be coming from “someone sitting on their bed weighing 400 pounds.” Uh, what?
Clinton did not let opportunities go by to score points with independents or moderate voters, reminding viewers that Trump once saw the mortgage crisis as a business opportunity, and she discussed race relations in thoughtful terms. Meanwhile, Trump made truly bizarre statements, such as she has been been fighting ISIS for 30 years! and “African-Americans and Hispanics are living in hell, you walk down the streets, you get shot.” Note to Trump: Testiness is not a presidential look.
The fact that at several points Trump was arguing with moderator Lester Holt showed that things were not going his way. In one of the most notable moments of the night, Trump’s declaration that he had a much better temperament than Clinton earned spontaneous laughter from the audience at Hofstra University. As Trump might say: “Sad.”
Unusual omissions tonight: No mentions of Trump’s feuds with everyone from a distinguished Mexican-American judge to a Gold Star family. More glaringly: no discussion of immigration.
Whether viewers agree with Clinton’s positions or not, she was able to articulate them in a reasonable and rational manner. She did well, and she knew it. She was obviously ready to discuss problematic issues like her emails. The grin on her face near the end of the debate was evidence that she was aware that she had had a great night. Once you’ve traveled the world, negotiated treaties, and testified before Congress for 11 hours, she said to Trump with a hint of mockery, then “you can talk to me about stamina.” Mic drop. Game over. Tonight at least, Hillary Clinton won.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him @RaulAReyes.
Jeff Yang: Trump weaved his own hanging rope
This was a remarkable moment in American political history. Has there been a prior event in which a candidate has so completely and remarkably demonstrated his unfitness for the presidency, in character, temperament, preparation and aptitude?
Donald Trump’s now-familiar pattern of winning debates through sheer bluster and braggadocio was effective when he was facing a gaggle of opponents, all of whom had similar ideologies but less exaggerated stage personas. But faced with a single rival with clearly distinct ideas and experience and a staunchly unflappable attitude, he seemed rude, ignorant, volatile and churlish. Despite pundit assertions that Hillary Clinton had the burden of proof in this debate, the truth is that she simply needed to hold strong and let Hurricane Trump blow itself out. And she did.
Sadly, moderator Lester Holt was a non-presence in the debate. But his inability to restrain Trump proved an asset to Clinton, who spent much of the time leaning back and smiling to herself, knowing that her opponent was weaving his own hanging rope.
Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including PRI’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action.”
Sally Kohn: Trump train derailed
Donald Trump’s supporters like to refer to his movement as “The Trump Train.” Well, tonight The Trump Train went off the rails. Big time.
Admittedly, to many observers, the train was already way off track. Maybe it started the moment his campaign began, when he dismissed Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” Or maybe it was when he attacked Sen. John McCain. Or later, when he attacked a Gold Star family. Certainly, many Americans have paid attention to the media’s attempts at fact checking – including one report that Trump only tells the truth 22% of the time, and another that found in five hours of talking, Trump outright lied an average of every 3 minutes and 15 seconds.
But for those who somehow thought, up until Monday night, that Donald Trump might somehow be qualified to be president, Monday’s debate was a wakeup call. He seemed like a defensive, petulant bully who could only insult Hillary Clinton and America – and couldn’t offer a single solution, let alone details. He came across as not only dreadfully unprepared for the debate, but dreadfully unprepared to be president. Which is the truth. And it’s high time all Americans know it.
But don’t believe me. I’m obviously biased. Believe Frank Luntz. In his live focus group of undecided and leaning voters, just six people thought Trump won while 16 said Clinton was the victor. In moment after moment, the focus group preferred Clinton. For instance, Clinton’s response to Trump’s attack on her stamina scored better than Trump’s attack. And Hillary’s plan to defeat ISIS actually scored better with the Trump leaners in the group than with the Clinton leaners.
In moment after moment, Hillary Clinton presented a knowledgeable and clear-eyed vision for how to help working families and continue America on the path to security and prosperity. Donald Trump, in contrast, lied, and got defensive. He was petty and insulting, and then lied some more. Lies apparently can only get the Trump train so far. Eventually it runs out of steam.
Hillary Clinton showed herself to be the kind of person you want in the White House. And Donald Trump showed himself to be the kind of kindergartner who should have his train taken away and instead given a timeout.
Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. She supports Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
Buck Sexton: Trump needs stronger showing next time
The conventional wisdom going into the first debate was that Donald Trump would have to tone it down and appear more presidential. Trump definitely took a more staid and steadied approach, but it didn’t work. His bravado and charm were largely absent from the stage. Trump the showman can dance around policy pitfalls and distract from some of his less than successful business dealings. Sedate Donald had far fewer tools at his disposal, and looked like he couldn’t wait for the 90-minute snooze-fest to end.
Hillary Clinton didn’t give a memorable performance, but she didn’t have to. Most Americans expect Madame Secretary to drone on, joylessly, about policy, and wave her curriculum vitae like a club against her enemies. She met expectations, which was enough, and during some of the actual policy exchanges clearly had the upper hand on knowledge and background.
Trump had huge areas of vulnerability to exploit in his opponent, and he barely touched her on them – from Benghazi to her emails to the allegations of Clinton Foundation corruption. He will need a much stronger showing in his next debate or this thing will be over long before November.
Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of “The Buck Sexton Show” on TheBlaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst. He has endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency.
Nayyera Haq: Trump looked more like Grumpy Cat than a leader
Trump’s glass jaw was exposed throughout Clinton’s onslaught of policy laden counter-punches. Trump came into this debate attempting to appeal to a broader audience, so he needed to leave behind the showmanship and bravado that worked for him in the primary and instead carry himself with presidential composure. But his calm voice lasted only 20 minutes and his listening face made him look more like Grumpy Cat than a leader, showing that rehearsed moves just don’t work for him.
Trump had Clinton momentarily against the ropes early on about NAFTA and TPP, but then he allowed his emotion to take over and did not regain his own footing for the remainder of the debate. His heavy handed depictions of America’s problems didn’t hold up against Hillary’s detailed, solution oriented answers. His snorting asides were countered with some surprising zingers from Hillary – “Donald criticized me for preparing for this debate. You know what else I prepared for? To be President.”
Trump crumbled under Hillary’s attacks on his business record, lack of transparency on taxes, and understanding of African-American communities. By the time it came around to national security, the contrast in experience was even more clear, with Clinton nimbly moving around the globe and Trump invoking his 10-year-old son–who, he told us, is good at computers – in a discussion of cyber security. Trump’s abrupt defensiveness, especially on the issue of his temperament, allowed Clinton to come across as the champion of those who have been taken taken advantage of by big business and systemic racism. Calling this fight for Hillary.
Nayyera Haq is a former White House Senior Director and State Department spokesperson under the Obama administration, Nayyera is a regular commentator on politics and current affairs. She supports Hillary Clinton.