Presidential Campaign

Pundits react: Clinton won first debate

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The Hill asked Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan pundits to assess the first debate between presidential nominees Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R). Here’s what they had to say.




Brad Bannon

Winner: Hillary Clinton

The presidency may not a reality show, but the debate was. First, Clinton invited Mark Cuban, businessman and an alum of the reality show “Shark Tank” to the debate. Cuban is a well-known nemesis of Trump and the New York mogul returned fire by threatening to invite President Bill Clinton’s former paramour, Gennifer Flowers.

There’s so much shouting on reality shows that you can barely hear any conversations. In that spirit, Trump constantly interrupted and talked over Clinton.

The former first Lady is a skilled debater. She kept Trump on the defensive. She dutifully listened to the Republican nominee as he spoke. Trump, however grimaced and it looked like his head was about to explode while the Democratic nominee spoke.

In response to Trump’s attacks, Clinton did demonstrate that she can be be calm and collected, which are traits voters value in a commander in chief. Trump’s comments on nuclear weapons were virtually incoherent.

Trump, unlike Clinton, is glib. Clinton outlines policies while he says “law and order” and “stop and frisk.” The outcome may hinge on whether Americans want simple slogans or solid solutions to the nation’s problems.

Bannon is CEO of Bannon Communications Research, which works with progressive groups, labor unions and Democratic candidates. He contributes regularly to two nationally syndicated progressive talk radio shows, “The Leslie Marshall Show” and “The Jeff Santos Show.” Bannon is also political analyst for CLTV, the cable news station of the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV and a senior adviser to and contributing editor for, the social media network for politics.


Brent Budowsky

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Clinton demonstrated command of issues and scored by repeatedly taking a populist stand from raising taxes on the wealthy to making college affordable for students.

Trump began calm and scored by criticizing trade agreements, but then began repeatedly interrupting Clinton and making numerous factually inaccurate statements such as claiming he opposed the Iraq War — which moderator Lester Holt firmly debunked.

Trump was weak about his refusal to release his tax returns. Clinton scored, calling for Trump to release the returns and correctly explaining how Trump stiffed many workers who were not paid for work they did for him, how he filed for bankruptcy a number of times, may not be paying any taxes, spread the racist lie that President Obama is not an American, and praises Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Clinton’s performance will increase enthusiasm for her and when she said she didn’t only prepare for the debates, she “prepared to be president,” she scored with undecided voters.

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and former Chief Deputy Majority Whip Bill Alexander (D-Ark.). He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. Contact him at


Nomiki Konst

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Tonight’s debate was for Trump to lose and Clinton to win. Trump needed to show up, delve into details and control his temper.

He did one of the three.

Clinton needed to remind America where we were eight years ago, what’s at stake if we reverse course and show voters that she cares about them. The former secretary of State also needed to stay away from the Trump rabbit hole, as he would undoubtedly try to “hit her” early on, attempting to put her on the defensive.

The secretary was upbeat, seemed to take make light of Trump’s outrageous remarks and, most importantly, stayed the course. As Clinton showed the world what presidential leadership looks like, an unhinged Trump went into a rhetorical abyss.

With record viewership, I cannot imagine any undecideds still being on the fence after this debate — or how Trump can win moving forward.

Konst is a political analyst and communications strategist regularly appearing on national media outlets discussing politics. She is founder and executive director of The Accountability Project, an investigative news start-up centered on political corruption. She is also the host of The Accountability Podcast, the only podcast that solely focuses on political corruption.


Former Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.)

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Normally, we anticipate a presidential race to turn on the candidates’ likability and trustworthiness. We know both candidates have high negatives on both counts.

The body language of the candidates spoke volumes. Clinton was composed, did not interrupt and stood calmly throughout. Trump, on the other hand, scowled, interrupted and was generally angry and agitated. In this category, the former secretary of State acted professionally and presidential.

Trump’s answers displayed an appalling lack of knowledge on virtually every subject raised during the debate. His answers were filled with nonresponsive hyperbole and were generally vacuous. He was at his charlatan best tonight.

Clinton was knowledgable, offered substantive responses and was clearly prepared. The knowledge gap between the two candidates was embarrassing.

Initially, it appeared Trump was on script, but he quickly slipped off once the “birther” and Iraq War issues were raised. He pushed forward with obvious lies and seemed unable to comprehend where this was taking him. Clinton stayed disciplined through out.

The number of times he referred to his business interests irrespective of context or relevancy was truly bizarre.

Late in the debate, he claimed that his temperament was his greatest asset. I guess he believes an adolescent’s temperament is what a president needs.

If voters are choosing risk versus change, Trump clearly solidified that he’s a great risk to the U.S.

This was a win for Clinton.

Owens, a former member of Congress representing New York’s 21st District, is a partner in the firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley, PLLC, in Plattsburgh, N.Y.




Former Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.)

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Clinton proved tonight the efficacy of an old axiom: Prior Planning Precludes Poor Performance.

Her detailed debate prep — which included mock debates right up to this morning — paid off big-time. She looked confident, calm and composed, while Trump appeared frantic, nervous and distracted.

She exposed his ignorance on almost all issues; she skewered him on his tax returns. And he never brought up the Clinton Foundation, and never framed the election as a change election.

The look on his face after the debate said it all: He knew he had lost. Meanwhile, Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton looked exuberant while remaining on the stage shaking hands long after Trump exited.

Final Verdict: Clinton won — and Trump lost — big time.

LeBoutillier is a former Republican congressman from New York and is the co-host of “Political Insiders” on Fox News Channel, Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. He writes semi-regular pieces in the Contributors section on the “State of the 2016 Race.”


Matt Mackowiak

Winner: Hillary Clinton

In conventional terms, Clinton won the debate. She did about all she could do. She was over-prepared, and for each question, she knew what she wanted to do and did it.

Trump was good at times, on issues like trade and taxes, but he spent far too much time on defense and not nearly enough time on offense.

Trump didn’t need to win on points; he only had to surpass expectations. I think he probably did, although not by much. What he did well was embrace a change message, which is what the electorate wants in a change election.

My sense is Trump is still in the game, but that Clinton’s solid performance will halt her negative slide in the polls.

Mackowiak is syndicated columnist; an Austin, Texas-based Republican consultant; and former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.


Rick Manning

Winner: Donald Trump

For months, Clinton and her allies in the #NeverTrump movement have attempted to paint Trump as someone who couldn’t do the job of the presidency.

Tonight, Trump proved them wrong.

Trump was particularly impressive when he passionately defended the success of the “stop and frisk” policy in New York City in lowering the number of homicides. By making the crime issue about the non-criminals who live in the impacted communities and are victimized, Trump showed that this issue isn’t about arresting people, but instead about protecting the innocent. It was clear that Trump believed every word he said, speaking directly to African-American and Hispanic voters about the personal safety issue that dominates their lives with a passion that Clinton never mustered.

And it is that passion, whether it is for reviving America’s manufacturing sector, negotiating better deals on the international stage or restoring order in our nation’s cities so that every American can thrive, that separated Trump from his opponent. He clearly believes that he can address the ills that face the nation, while Clinton appeared to be a policy wonk detached from the impact of the policies she has supported, hoping no one would notice.

Trump needed to show the nation he could exchange facts with the media’s chosen heir apparent to the presidency and he did. He showed himself to be at least the equal to Clinton and in fact turned her public experience against her, simply by asking, why didn’t she do something about these problems when she held great power?

While Clinton looked for partisan fact-checkers to bail her out, Trump made a strong case that he is a safe choice for president, effectively ending the main attack that Clinton has launched against him for those who watched without jaded eyes.

Both benefited from appearing to be somewhat likeable. But with Trump rising and having all the political momentum, nothing Clinton did or said should change that reality, and in fact, Trump’s brilliant handling of the race issue should create real competition in that once lock-solid Democrat constituency for the first time in a generation.

If the next debates go as this one did, Trump will be the next president of the United States, and it won’t really be that close.

Manning is a longtime conservative political professional who remains active in his local Republican Party.


Ford O’Connell

Winner: Draw

Presidential debates rarely turn on policy proficiency; rather, they turn on body language, zingers, personality and stumbles.

This one was fiery from the start, and the fact-checkers will certainly have headaches tomorrow morning. Trump had Clinton staggering for the first 20 minutes on the issues of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and trade. But Clinton was able to right the ship by putting Trump on the defensive about his tax returns and the issue of “birtherism.”

Trump failed to capitalize on several opportunities, most prominently Clinton’s email scandal. Clinton scored points, but Trump hardly disqualified himself.

The good news for Trump is that he went toe-to-toe with Clinton on the debate stage, which elevated his legitimacy as a candidate — something that’s especially crucial when you are the challenger party candidate.

As we move on to the second debate, look for both candidates to tweak their tactics.

O’Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, an adjunct professor at George Washington University Graduate School of Political Mangement, worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is author of the book “Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery.”




Bernie Quigley

Winner: Donald Trump

Within the first 15 minutes of the debate, Clinton defended her position in support of foreign trade and NAFTA which, Trump had brought under attack, and she used the phrase, “[M]y husband did a pretty good job in 1990s … [W]e can make it work again.”

It gave the impression that hers was a restorationist candidacy intent on bringing back the America of the Bill Clinton years, while Trump established dominance at the very beginning with a vigorous mantra of cutting taxes, identifying both China and Mexico as job stealers and public enemies, and calling to bring back jobs to America.

Trump said he had “created a movement.” It had almost a revolutionary, animated, populist feel to it in contrast to the staid, old school (elitist?) establishment of Hillary Clintn as agent of a second (Bill) Clinton era.

Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children. Contact him at


Tom Squitieri

Winner: Hillary Clinton

She stayed on message and was firmly on the offense. If the battle is for the 3 to 5 percent of undecided voters, she looked at times more presidential — if that matters in this election — and generally had better temperament. Trump seemed flustered at times and often lapsed into self-contradiction.

It might have been a cleaner hit had she not muddled her good points on Trump (she had several, such as on stamina) and if she had something new to announce. That is not her style and weakens her.

She also persisted with smugness and what looked liked forced smiling and failed to offer a message, tag line or breakout line to make people positively think or rethink how they see her campaign.

The battle is for that 3 to 5 percent, who have to decide whom they dislike less. Clinton may have helped herself on the “birther” issue and on Trump’s treatment of women; Trump shored up his support but likely didn’t win many new supporters.

Trump lucked out because his manner of speaking helped camouflage what could be self-inflicted wounds in a normal year, such as admitting not paying taxes — “That makes me smart” — and his getting sued from keeping blacks out of a housing development being “just one of those things” and his moaning “it’s not nice and I don’t deserve that.” And he raised the issue of Bill Clinton’s infidelities by praising himself for not raising it.

Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at American University and Washington and Jefferson College.



The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John McCain

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