At Washington University in St Louis, MO, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump squared off in a town hall-style moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz. The debate came in the wake of the Trump Tapes scandal in which audio of Donald Trump making incredibly unsavoury comments about women. There were a series of moments that caught my attention, some for obvious reasons, but it’s also worth pointing out what wasn’t mentioned tonight. The moderators were incredibly passive and because they have been inculcated in a media culture that values entertainment over actual news, the array of faux controversies was enough to keep the candidates occupied.
Before the debate even started we knew that it wasn’t going to be pretty. Trump, in a Facebook livestream, appeared alongside four women who were openly supporting him. The unique thing about these women was that they all accused Bill Clinton of being a rapist, and Trump was trying to use Hillary’s reaction to these women as a way of throwing her off her game for the debate. The secondary purpose of this stunt was to try and boost Trump’s appeal with women. According to recent opinion polls Trump is losing the female vote by 20 points, and he believes that by ‘supporting’ these women his approval ratings will improve.
When the debate eventually got underway it appeared to be as inane as we thought it would be. When the moderators brought up the recordings of his disgusting comments about women, he started babbling on about how much of a problem ISIS was. Trump quickly remembered what Kellyanne Conway had told him to say which was essentially to attack Bill Clinton. After a back and forth- which included a clearly rehearsed section from Clinton about the Khan family, Trump’s racist attack on a Latino judge, and Obama birther stuff- Trump played to his base by saying that if he was president Clinton would be in jail.
On the issue of healthcare Clinton said she wanted to maintain the Affordable Care Act and improve it to protect people who would previously not have insurance. She didn’t really say anything other than that because she was busy listing lots of pre-prepared facts about Obamacare. Trump’s alternative plan, if you could indeed call it that, was to get rid of the ACA and to allow health insurance companies to compete across state lines. This is a terrible idea because if this policy was enacted all the health insurance companies would move to the state with the least regulations, which would be massively bad for ordinary people. Interestingly Trump tried to criticise Clinton for supporting single-payer healthcare, even though she hasn’t come out in favour of this position for a number of years; even Bill Clinton has only come out for a public option.
There was an audience question on the subject of Muslims in America and the rise of Islamophobia. Clinton gave a polished response containing an annoying number of platitudes about bringing people together but she also made an important point about how the US needs to work with Muslim majority countries in the Middle East to defeat terrorism. Trump attempted to come across as not horrifically bigoted but that thin veil dropped when asked about his proposed Muslim ban which he renamed as ‘extreme vetting’. This was unfortunate wording because now this gives opponents of Trump, like myself, to legitimately call him an extremist (even though I already do).
Trump then referred to the fact that Clinton wants to allow more refugees into the US, but my problem is not what the GOP hopeful said, it’s with the moderator. When framing a question about refugees, moderator Martha Raddatz said “no system is perfect so why take the risk”. Firstly risk is a part of everyday life and so the question isn’t about risk but about whether the risk is involved is tolerable, and considering that the US has the most strict vetting system for refugees the risk has been minimised. And secondly no system is perfect because humans aren’t perfect and therefore any human institution or construct will have some problems somewhere. The framing of this question was incredibly right-wing which was surprising because there weren’t any other questions that screamed out as slanted one way or another.
When the subject of Syria came up it was a veritable shitshow because both candidates have terrible policies. Clinton said that she wants to institute a no-fly zone in Syria, which would only involve shooting down Russian planes, and she tried to grandstand about Russia by arguing that they were the primary opponent in Syria. Furthermore, the Democratic candidate reaffirmed her view that the US should be helping to fight the Assad regime and ISIS. On the plus side she did say that her policy would be to investigate Russia and Syria for potential war crimes and wouldn’t commit to a US ground invasion of Syria. Trump was at his most incoherent at this point. He described the Iran deal as being horrible, despite the fact that it isn’t, he said that the US should “take out ISIS” but then didn’t elaborate on how he would do that, and tried to link Hillary Clinton to President Obama’s infamous ‘line in the sand’ comment even though she wasn’t Secretary of State when Obama said that.
The Supreme Court also came up as an issue and this was where Clinton was strongest because she knew her stuff and tried to throw some meat out to the Left of the Democratic party. She said she wants to reverse Citizens United, defend same-sex marriage and Roe v. Wade, and rebalance the Court so it doesn’t always side with big business. I’m skeptical that she really believes the last one given the amount of money she takes from Corporate America, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. Trump, on the other hand, said he wanted to fill the currently vacant Supreme Court seat with someone “in the mold of Justice Scalia”. He said that his candidates would “respect the Constitution and respect the Second Amendment”, which he falsely claimed was under threat from Democrats.
Clinton also threw some meat out to her base on the issue of climate change and energy policy. She claimed that she wanted America to become the “21st century clean energy super-power”, which is rich coming from someone who went around the world promoting fracking but at least the rhetoric was positive. The Republican candidate called for ‘clean coal’ (which doesn’t exist) and alluded to increasing the amount of fracking in the United States. Trump tried to appeal to rust-belt states by referring to coal miners who have been made redundant because of the transition away from fossil fuels. From a political standpoint this makes sense because Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are important states in the campaign, but from an environmental standpoint allowing for more coal-fired power plants would be disastrous.
A common feature of the debate was Trump’s whining. He kept criticising the moderators for not allowing him to interrupt Clinton and for going over his time. Don’t be mistaken in thinking that the moderating wasn’t shit, because it most certainly was, but to argue that the moderators was biased against him is ludicrous. The moderators often asked questions to Trump that included quoting the Republican nominee verbatim. If you are angered by a question that involves your own words, the problem is not with the people asking the questions.
Some debates are remembered in the annuls of history for one particular moment or feature, whether it is Nixon’s sweaty upper lip in 1960 or Al Gore getting strangely close to George W. Bush in 2000. This debate did not have one definitive moment that could capture the lunacy of tonight; rather there were a series of moments that will unfortunately live on in history books. Trump was incoherent and Clinton was full of platitudes. He was incredibly rude and at times she looked distant. Was there a winner tonight? Yes, Clinton clearly won because Trump was even more of a dick than usual and was incredibly thin on policy specifics. Trump had to try and change the news cycle away from his failing campaign, but I think he was unsuccessful at doing that tonight.