The First Presidential Debate 2016: Analysis

Here's my full analysis which was posted on the great ElectionDebates Website, but some had to be removed. This is the full version of what I wrote: 

Presidential debate scholar Sydney Krause argued that Presidential debates are “joint press conferences.” This seems like an insult to those of us who think debate is an incredibly valuable form of discourse in society. But Krause’s point is not an insult. It is a warning. Krause, as many others after him, have articulated the many elements missing from Presidential debates that are necessary for debate. But the point goes further than simple accuracy. If we treat these events as debates even if they do not contain enough elements to be debates, we risk seeing what we want to, or re-assembling the event to match our expectations of reason and argument. Said in a shorter way, if you think there’s a pattern there, you’ll find one.

It’s not appropriate or productive to consider these events as debates in any formal sense. There’s no productive disagreement, i.e. there is no possibility for either speaker to have any place from which to advance or defend positions because neither is asked to take a position on a controversial issue. The question “Who is best suited to be President?” is not a debatable motion, because it can be answered in a way that avoids any engagement with the answer from the other side. There are no judges. There are no standards for evidence or proof. There’s no formal topic with which to agree or disagree. They cannot be debates, unless we wish to strip out of debates all the elements that make them different from arguing, speech, informing, negotiating, or discussing.

But these are valuable, important events. We do not discount their importance by pointing out they are not debates. The attribution is important; if we call them debates we limit our ability to respond appropriately to the entire spectrum of the event, searching for any utterances we can twist or push into the form of a reason or argument. These forms are too limited for events that do not correspond with argument and debate, and they strip away rich elements of the performance that are critical to our judgement of the candidates. Consider them situations where the candidates are required to produce agonistic rhetoric in the context of what they are being asked in the presence of their opponent. They are not addressing their opponent’s argument in a meaningful sense; they are creating argumentative speech in an unusual context for us to use to judge their ability to be President.

With that perspective, here’s my analysis of the first debate.

Both candidates had difficulty in speaking on two important issues: Framing the debate, i.e. What tools should we use to decide who won? And establishing principles, i.e. here are the things I stand for or ask myself when I’m thinking about Presidential issues. Debaters in this format need to remember it’s not about facts/truth/rightness but more about generating discourse that establishes how you think, reason, and judge. People are watching this, not machines. They will look for moments where they can identify with candidates, seeing their own reasoning present in the rhetoric of the candidate. Identification with how someone expresses reason will always beat factual accuracy in these events.

Clinton was doing well with this until she decided to attack Trump’s business practices. Turning the debate into an attack on Trump allowed him time to make some rational arguments in his comfort zone. Better to keep him fragmented and blaming “politicians” rather than sounding good on his own reasoning for running his business his way. He was not establishing principles or frameworks at all, but placing blame. Clinton’s attack inadvertently allowed him time to generate some rationalizing rhetoric to compete with her tone.

Trump should have spent a lot more time discussing infrastructure and how the US government sells this out via political deals to benefit career politicians. This argument might work pretty well for his supporters, but not in this context.  Trump needs more vision, and more principled explanation as to why he would reform taxes or improve infrastructure in those ways. Too often he blamed the current system when he could be establishing his position better.

On race relations, Trump did well using the phrase “Law & Order” without going into too much detail. Clinton did better here discussing the difficulties of doing police work and providing safety while not violating the rights of the people who live in tough areas. Trump was behind on this discussion talking more about his experiences and less about his judgement. Again, framing and principles, although loose, were more established by Clinton.

The biggest error in the debate was when Lester Holt challenged Trump on the facticity of the Stop and Frisk judgement. Instead, he should have asked Trump his thoughts about the ruling, or if he would agree with the legal reasoning behind such a judgement. This would have helped the audience with judgement a lot more than simply going back and forth on the fact itself. Clinton should have pointed out that this reasoning isn’t fit for someone who is President. One has to reason situationally to be President, she could argue. Trump favors the idea that a businessman’s mode of reason is a one-size-fits-all solution. This can be persuasive, but he needs to be more comparative on judgement to win it.

On security and nuclear weapons, Clinton did a much better job of establishing the principles of how she thinks about bilateral defense treaties, NATO, and nuclear weapons. Trump attacked the Iran treaty, but did not establish his own framework. This was a mistake - he should have set out his own thoughts first. His statement near the end would have been good: “I’m a businessman, not a politician. Here’s how I think.” This helps his statements about politicians being poor thinkers en masse make more sense.

The other topics such as the birther issue and Clinton’s appearance don’t seem as relevant to me as the other issues were, but on those Clinton’s responses were more attacks than anything else. It is probably justified, but a missed opportunity to compare modes of thought between the two people who could serve as President.

Clinton did a better job of generating valuable rhetoric in this debate, so I would declare her the “winner.”