There was a buzz of anticipation leading up to the first head-to-head debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Over 100million were expected to watch on television, exceeding even the Super Bowl’s viewing audience. In the event, the debate turned out to be like many Super Bowls – a huge letdown, falling far short of the pre-game build-up. It was neither highbrow political discussion nor lowbrow insult-hurling.
By any standard assessment, Clinton won on the debate. She was poised, spoke clearly and confidently, was well-prepared and knew her policy specifics. In a word, she looked presidential. Trump, by contrast, was all over the joint – he was rambling and incoherent. There are many policy arguments to be made against Clinton and the Democrats, but Trump proved once again that he is incapable of making them effectively. Trump may have put a new style of nationalism on the American political agenda, raising issues like trade and immigration, but he is unable to close the deal on any of these topics.
At several points, Clinton was able to put Trump on the defensive. She dangled issues that played to her advantage, and the ill-disciplined Trump went after them, like a cat chasing a toy. Whether defending his unwillingness to release his tax returns or his stiffing of contractors and workers, Trump couldn’t help giving long-winded answers, digging a deeper hole. Clinton attacked him over his conspiracy-fuelled ‘birther’ campaign against President Obama, and Trump had no good response. Despite needling Hillary about her health, and her ‘stamina’ in recent weeks, Trump was the one who looked ‘low-energy’ in the debate.
The debate highlighted that ideas do matter. What this election has shown is that, when the discussion focuses on domestic and foreign-policy specifics, Clinton benefits, as Trump is exposed as out of his depth. But when the campaigns move on to the terrain of the Culture War, Trump benefits, as voters see him as a vehicle for a backlash against the establishment. Last night there was a lot of policy and little Culture War, and that played to Clinton’s advantage.
Yet, for all of the weaknesses that Trump displayed, you have to say that Clinton didn’t deliver a knockout blow. Clinton contends that Trump is uniquely dangerous, beyond the pale and ‘unfit’ for office. This has set a very low bar for Trump. Just by appearing on the stage with Hillary and surviving, he appears to exceed those low expectations. In other words, Trump didn’t necessarily have to ‘win’ the debate to remain very much in contention.