Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

"Hundreds of thousands of other U.S. citizens travelling the globe have received similar incredulous queries from the curious, who are truly concerned about the November elections and the implications for their countries and their futures."

Jim Green

Watson Institute Faculty Respond to the First Presidential Debate

Policy in Perspective

September 27, 2016

Sound and Fury
Given the polarization of this election, the negative views of both candidates held by the voters, and the intense feelings each candidate arouses among core supporters and the general public, I very much doubt that there are millions of Americans sitting around saying, “Gee, I’m totally undecided. Trump or Hillary? What am I to do?” While polls in June and July showed as many as 25 percent of voters undecided, today, according to Reuters, only 7 percent are truly undecided. Now, from that number, eliminate those masking their true preferences and adjust for likelihood to actually show up and vote, and you get very few people who really have not made up their minds yet. Given this, what is the debate going to do? Primarily reinforce what people already think and mobilize the core. In that way the debate matters, but in many ways, the die is already cast. The information content is zero. The performance content is high.

Mark Blyth
Mark Blyth
Eastman Professor of Political Economy
Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs


No Contest
This debate was about persona, not about policy. Hillary Clinton showed that a female candidate could “look presidential.” Donald Trump’s thin-skinned, emotional responses reconfirmed questions about his temperament. Trump’s boast that paying no taxes is just good business highlighted the deep gulf between thinking like a real estate mogul and thinking like a leader charged with promoting the common good.


Margaret Weir
Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs


Contrasting--If Unsurprising--Performances
I believe, with most of the public "talking heads" I have heard giving their own opinion over the last half hour that Donald Trump provided confirmation of most of the limitations his Democratic Party critics have being pointing to in his case for months, while Hillary Clinton's performance must have greatly reassured these same individuals. Her mood, generally relaxed manner, and command of the issues stood in marked contrast with her opponent's poor manners, high self-regard, bombast, and generally shallow, if not uninformed, analysis of complex issues. I should imagine he hurt his chances tonight, while she strengthened her own--indeed significantly so in both their cases.


Newell M. Stultz
Professor Emeritus of Political Science


What My Friends in Brazil Can’t Understand about the U.S. Elections
In spite of the political and economic crisis confronting Brazilians at the moment, I spent a lot of time in June explaining to my university colleagues in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Brasília how and why Trump managed to get the Republican nomination. “Do you really think he can become the President of the United States?” they universally asked in disbelief. Hundreds of thousands of other U.S. citizens travelling the globe have received similar incredulous queries from the curious, who are truly concerned about the November elections and the implications for their countries and their futures. This is not to say that there is universal enthusiasm for a Clinton presidency. Still, even though I presented detailed explanations about lasting traditions of xenophobia, deeply embedded patterns of racism, lingering side effects of the Great Recession, and the poisonous politics of resentment, from afar the U.S. democratic political system seems endangered. Trump’s performance during the debate was certainly unhinged and revealed his weaknesses, but the fact that 40 percent of likely voters support him remains alarming to thinking people around the world.


James Green
Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Professor of Latin American History


Misunderstanding Alliances, Underestimating the Stakes
Donald Trump’s debate performance provides further evidence that his views on nuclear weapons are incoherent and misinformed, if not outright dangerous. In the span of several seconds, he said he would not use nuclear weapons first and then contradicted himself by saying all options are on the table. He concurred with Secretary Clinton that nuclear weapons are the greatest threat facing the United States—a rare area of agreement—but then refused to disavow his prior statements that U.S. allies should get their own nuclear weapons if they aren’t willing to pay the United States more for its protection.

This last point betrays Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and objectives of U.S. alliances. The United States does not protect its allies out of the goodness of its heart; rather, it does so in order to maintain stability in strategically critical regions and achieve cooperation on issues of crucial importance to the country, including counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation. Were the United States to abandon its allies over financial disputes and encourage them to acquire nuclear weapons, as Trump recommends, this would risk the unraveling of the nonproliferation regime and increase the risk of nuclear war.

Trump may claim that he takes the threat of nuclear weapons seriously, but his policies would increase rather than decrease global nuclear dangers.


Nick Miller
Dean’s Assistant Professor of Nuclear Security and Policy
Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs and of Political Science


Clashing Views on Policing
On criminal justice, Secretary Clinton proposed some basic tenets of the burgeoning movement for criminal justice reform in America, beginning with greater attention to discriminatory police practices and to the heavy-handed effects of mandatory minimum sentencing. Donald Trump did not offer any recognition of problems in the criminal justice system. Instead, he criticized Secretary Clinton for using the word “superpredator” in the 1990s, while repeatedly invoking Richard Nixon’s 1980s rhetoric about “law and order.” Mr. Trump promoted the idea that aggressive “stop and frisk” policing reduced crime in New York City. But coincidence is not causation. Violent crime rates went down in cities without stop-and-frisk during the same time they went down in New York. The evidence that “stop and frisk” had a significant effect on crime rates is limited and highly contested. Secretary Clinton made reference to the clear costs of these policies, in the unwarranted invasion of privacy of targeting young black men. Mr. Trump defended these policies against being held unconstitutional on those grounds, making an off-hand remark that federal Judge Shira Scheindlin is "a very against police judge." Mr. Trump is getting his advice on this matter from former NYC Mayor Giuliani, who has staked his reputation on “stop and frisk” policing.

With a major party candidate urging the expansion of stop-and-frisk policing, it would be an ideal time to have a serious debate about this issue on campus. Whom could we invite? Who would be welcome?


Ross Cheit
Professor of International and Public Affairs and of Political Science


Facts Are Not His Friends
Donald Trump confirmed last night that he is the somewhat anti-data and anti-constitutional candidate. One moment that made this clear was Trump's flat denial--"No, you're wrong"--of the moderator's observation that "stop and frisk" is  unconstitutional. Lester Holt was in fact right: he was making reference to Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin's 2013 ruling in Floyd v. New York. Scheindlin drew on years of official police reports (publicly available from the NYCLU) in ruling that the disproportionate targeting of law-abiding blacks and Hispanics violated their 4th and 14th Amendment rights. That ruling, driven by data, stands today, and has served as the basis for the restoration of constitutional rights for thousands and thousands of New York citizens. In the debate, Trump called Judge Scheindlin a "...very against police judge." She is, though--like most professional jurists--pro-data and pro-constitution. By advocating for “stop and frisk” policies, dismissing Holt, and then questioning the legitimacy of a federal judge's ruling, Trump made clear his impatience for facts and principles--and in this case, federal law--in policy-making.  


Keith Brown
Director of Postdoctoral and Undergraduate Policy Programs


May Democracy Survive This Election
I dreaded this debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. She easily won, but I’m not sure democracy will.

The Fantasy of Trump may be too powerful to be affected by anything we heard tonight.

Secretary Clinton was everything a professional politician could wish. She was well prepared with great sound bytes (“Trumped Up Trickledown Economics” and her contrast of their paternal wealths). She maneuvered Trump into affirming with his responses real negatives (income tax return refusals and a completely confused response about first nuclear strike capacity). His sexism was on full display (how many women suffer men’s interruptions?). I found her invocation of his stiffing of working class contractors especially compelling, but I care about social justice.  I am not sure all of Trump’s supporters do.

Most Republicans care first about liberty. They also care about security. Perhaps Trump managed to mobilize National Rifle Association enthusiasts, but most of those I know believe in caution and preparedness. They cannot abide inconsistency and recklessness. Trump was both tonight.

Read Michael Kennedy's full text here.


Michael D. Kennedy
Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs


Why Wasn’t War Part of the Debate?
Although the United States seems trapped in a “forever war” that extends across much of Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, this was not a theme in the presidential debate.  Trump missed a great chance. He could have accomplished two things: clarify his own positions on national security issues, and portray his opponent as a warmonger.  He did neither.

Trump has asserted that he would treat Israel and Palestinians equally, but also that he is unreservedly pro-Israel. He wants to cooperate with Muslim countries while banning their citizens from entering the U.S. In the debate he did nothing to clear up these and other contradictions in his foreign policy views. He mentioned his unhappiness that some U.S. allies “aren’t paying their fair share” of defense costs, but did not pursue the point.

Trump did not pounce on Clinton’s stated desire to escalate the conflict in Syria and extend the Afghanistan war. He made no mention of her role in promoting the disastrous regime change operation in Libya. Most oddly, he did not defend or even mention his strong view that it is foolish for the US to provoke Russia in Russia’s backyard. Whether to confront or conciliate Russia is one of our principal foreign policy dilemmas. The two candidates disagree strongly, and Americans would greatly benefit from hearing arguments on both sides. Last night they heard none. Both candidates have terrifying foreign policy views, but neither was called to defend them.


Stephen Kinzer
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs


Making Deals and Making Policy
Donald Trump had one thing that he repeated nearly two dozen times at last night’s debate, and it was the word “deal.”  America’s leaders have been making “bad deals” with foreigners, he repeatedly claimed – bad trade agreements primarily, but also bad diplomatic arrangements – and he would make great ones.  As throughout his campaign, he reminds voters that the deals he has made as a businessman have made him a billionaire (his inheritance, his bankruptcies, his abuse of litigation and sub-contractors aside) and they, he implies, are what will make the voters economically successful again. He has argued or assumed that these skills qualify him to be President over Hillary Clinton, despite his complete lack of governing experience and her wealth of it.

Read Cathy Lutz's full text here.


Catherine Lutz
Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Family Professor of International Studies
Professor of Anthropology


It's Only a Game
Monday night's “debate,” as expected, was not a contest between dueling ideas or proposals for improving the nation's political economy or global leadership position but an exercise in one-upmanship, image-polishing, and competitive preening. It  revealed next to nothing about what poilices Clinton or Trump would follow. A large number of Americans and most foreign observers are shaking their heads not just at the choices on offer but at the way they are being presented. (Despite strong support in the polls for third party candidates, the organizers--who represent the bipartisan political establishment--ensured that these candidates would not be heard. If views with significant public support were excluded from debate in a foreign country, the United States would immediately denounce this as tainting the freedom, fairness, and legitimacy of the electoral process.)  

“Debates” of this incoherent sort just add to the already severe national angst over our democracy's ability to govern competently.  Political reporting in the United States is now indistinguishable from sports coverage.  It is all about how the game is played, not about its consequences for the citizenry or the world. This is no way to select a leader or to gain a mandate from the people to govern. It provides no guidance about what must be done and how, and it unnerves rather than reassures our partners abroad.


Chas Freeman
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs


The First Presidential Debate: What We Learned
"I think Donald Trump did very well in the first quarter, sort of half good in the second quarter, particularly on trade -- even his point on crime and the fact that proportionately Latino and African Americans who live in poor neighborhoods are subject to higher rates of crime and are not well served by a lot of the politicians in their communities in reducing that crime. That's a legitimate issue, so he even had some moments. But by the third quarter, fourth quarter he was fading badly and [Clinton] saved some of her best lines for the end."

Read Wendy's full interview on MPR News


Wendy Schiller
Professor of Political Science, Professor of International and Public Affairs, Chair of Political Science


Insult and Injury
The event brought out a few things: that Trump tried – against repeated disruptive self-assertions – to look more presidential; and that Clinton was prepared for this debate “and for the Presidency as well,” as she put it.

Clinton “won the debate” by better than two out of three votes in the post-debate CNN poll. But that may not mean much.

What remains is Trump’s candidacy, which I consider the worst insult to American politics in recent memory. He has fostered fierce prejudices against Blacks, Hispanics, Mexicans, Muslims and foreigners of any kind, supported authoritarian inclinations, and promised tough hostility to many other countries, including our allies.

What enlarged the insult was the response by many primary voters. Many of them enthusiastically supported his divisive and undemocratic campaign. This was followed by the inability of the party to prevent him from becoming the official presidential candidate of the GOP.  As a result, it is still possible that he could win.

At best, Trump’s proto-fascist appearance in this country may just follow Marx’s joke about duplication in history: that what in the first instance was a profound tragedy, the second time around may just be a farce.


Dietrich Rueschemeyer
Charles C. Tillinghast Jr. '32 Professor Emeritus of International Studies
Professor Emeritus of Sociology 


Playing with Fire
Bumper sticker slogans do not make good foreign policy. But the Middle East will need good policy from the next U.S. president. In this first presidential debate, Donald Trump was unable to go beyond simplistic and outdated slogans about Iran. Trump was inaccurate in that Iran was not “given” $150 billion dollars from the U.S.; with the signed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement, Iran is not on track to have a nuclear weapon in 10 years; nor is Iran a major trading partner with “power over North Korea.” If Trump were to be president, he would need a careful and nuanced approach to relations with Iran. Instead, he favors belligerence.

Trump described the historic nuclear deal with Iran as one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. Never mind that the United Nations inspection regime tells us that Iran is complying with all its commitments. Hillary Clinton defended the accord by raising the key policy question: what good alternative to diplomacy is there? “Would he have started a war? Would he have bombed Iran?”

Perhaps the most dangerous moment on Iran was Trump casually threatening to start a war. Clinton quoted Trump’s statement that his response to taunts by Iranian sailors would be to “blow them out of the water and start another war.” Trump’s follow-up was “that would not start a war.” This suggests not only contradiction but more significantly a basic lack of understanding about the escalation of hostilities. Blowing up Iran isn’t a good bumper stick and it would be disastrous foreign policy by a President Trump.


Jo-Anne Hart
Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs