The first US presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump just finished and there are some important things to note. The debate was held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, and was hosted by NBC News hose Lester Holt. I don’t normally commend the media on occasions like this, because they are shit, but I have to congratulate Holt on asking legitimate questions and sticking to policy substance. It’s worth pointing out that he let a lot slide during the debate itself but again his performance was much better than I expected. Having covered debates in the past I am aware that perception is everything and irrespective of who I believe did better, my opinion is largely irrelevant. Nonetheless here’s my initial take on this evening’s events.
The first thing that I noticed was that Clinton was being much more detailed than in other media appearances. Normally when Clinton speaks she uses platitudes and slogans than have no meaning whatsoever, and although she dabbled in this phraseology later on in the night, she began the debate relatively well in relatively good detail. Trump on the other hand essentially repeated the same general ideas that he had been articulating since day one, all of which were without many details.
Clinton’s answers began specific, and on economic matters she was able to talk about her policies on equal pay for women, paid maternity leave, a higher minimum wage and many others, but when the conversation moved onto trade she was out of her depth. She believes in free trade, and unfortunately for her voters in many states do not share her view. As the questions moved onto other areas, Clinton, to her credit, spoke about the need to introduce gun restrictions and to end systemic racism in the US criminal justice system.
Trump countered this by calling for a stop-and-frisk nationwide, which is not only unconstitutional but has been shown not to work. But strangely this might work. Trump is not popular among African-Americans or Latinos, but he’s very popular among white voters. If Trump keeps saying that stop-and-frisk works, white voters who are not stopped will not be aware of the racial bias that is inherent in this policy. If Trump wins a large enough proportion of the white vote, he may squeak out enough electoral votes.
Trump’s campaign had clearly focused on a few phrases designed to contrast himself with Clinton. He called Clinton a “standard politician”, a “political insider”, a “hack” and so on, and to be honest he isn’t exactly wrong. He lambasted the corruption of Washington DC and claimed that as an outsider he would be best placed to lead the US. Trump clearly had these stock phrases, but he also brought up specifics that illustrated a level of preparation that many hadn’t expected. He brought up how Sidney Blumenthal had started the birther controversy, which was true, Clinton’s use of the term ‘super-predators’, and her support of NAFTA. Time after time after time he made reference to Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in regards to trade deals. If he keeps doing this he will win those states and will be the next president of the United States.
What was unsettling about Trump’s performance, however, was how he was able to sociopathically lie without batting an eye. For example when Clinton pointed out that in 2002 Trump supported the Iraq War on Howard Stern’s radio show, which has been proven to be factually true, he kept repeating that he never said that and when Lester Holt said that the record showed that he had supported the war, Trump argued that that was because the record was biased against him. He also made a big deal about how people should go and speak to Fox News host Sean Hannity about his views, but this would be a fruitless endeavour as Hannity has openly come out in support of Trump. If asked by the press, why would Hannity say anything other than what Trump wanted to, especially if you’re already full-throatedly supporting him?
So having said all this, who do I think won? The answer is very simple, I have no fucking clue. If you are genuinely concerned with policy substance then Trump’s incoherent statements and accusations based in an alternate reality will alienate you, and thus you will probably favour Clinton’s more specific answers. Then again, if you are sick and tired of the status quo and conventional wisdom Trump very much set his stall out as the anti-establishment candidate. On the bright side when Trump claimed that his best attribute was his temperament the audience in the room laughed, and I bet that this would also be true for many people at home.
As a general rule I would hope policy substance wins the day, but the anger that is out there among people on the Left and the Right is exactly what makes this election so hard to predict. We won’t know for sure who won the debate until scientific polls come out in a few days time, so for now we have to play a waiting game where the stakes couldn’t be much higher.