Hillary Clinton went into the first US presidential debate with several disadvantages. One, she is not a great debater even though she is known for her command of policy detail. She was up against Donald Trump, a guy who deals mostly in one-liners, who is not impervious to lying and doesn’t engage deeply on any issue. She is methodical and deductive, he is discursive and erratic. She is an establishment candidate--wife of a popular former president, a former senator and secretary of state--he a self-obsessed business tycoon masquerading as an insurgent, representing a section of the white working class.
As said, it wasn’t an easy contest for Clinton; she had to debate in a fashion that didn’t again generate questions about her “likeability” (or her age). The Clinton camp will be gratified that the debate went on as they might have hoped. It did not dwell too long on her emails or other controversial issues and it afforded her an opportunity to highlight to independent voters what a danger to America and the world Trump would be as President. Even if the number of independent voters she convinced in key swing states may not be very high--as there were no knockout punches in this debate--there were no major faux pas from Clinton and she did manage to project herself as the more grown-up candidate.
Donald Trump seemed to get more of the airtime--and that eventually was his undoing. He did have his moments though. He was quite effective in portraying Clinton as part of the establishment that got America into the trouble it is claimed to be in. He said her husband, Bill Clinton, masterminded the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which he alleged were responsible for job losses. He criticised her for initially supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement which forced Clinton to defensively say she did not negotiate it, allowing Trump to suggest that she differed with President Barack Obama who backs the trade deal. He constantly reiterated that US’ debt of $20 trillion leaves the government very little cash to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Trump said parts of the US, such as some of its airports, were like the third world as compared to places like Dubai and Qatar. He wants to renegotiate trade deals to stop jobs going overseas, reduce taxes and ease regulation so that American investors can bring their investments home.
Clinton insisted, in return, that trickle-down economics and tax cuts for the wealthy have not worked. The wealthy need to pay their fair share of taxes and, besides, trade was not the only challenge for the economy.
After doing well on economic issues, Trump made mistakes at three junctures that would have turned off independent voters, particularly those from minority groups.
On the issue of race relations in the context of the series of shootings of unarmed black men by police, Trump pandered to his disaffected white base by taking a tough line; he emphasised the need for law and order; mentioned the endorsements he was getting from police associations and from the National Rifle Association (”these are good people”), spoke of gangs roaming the street and endorsed the unpopular stop and frisk policies.
These comments will no doubt get a lot of play in the coming weeks to get the black community to vote, as it is reportedly not enthused enough about Clinton to turn up in November. President Obama made an impassioned speech to the Congressional Black Caucus recently urging black voters to vote if they care about his legacy - and memorably said “All the progress we’ve made is at stake in this election. My name may not be on the ballot, but our progress is on the ballot. Tolerance is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Good schools are on the ballot. Ending mass incarceration--that’s on the ballot right now!”
Obama’s speech will have galvanised black voters--and Trump’s comments during the debate are likely to compel the community to vote in big numbers, which will make a big difference in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Two, Clinton did not interrupt Trump much during the debate (as the latter did) but at key moments she managed to raise doubts about his reliability and character. She said he rooted for the US housing crisis to happen and made money off it--to which he tactlessly retorted as “that’s business”, forgetting the many who lost their homes and savings as a result. She mentioned that he had not paid people who delivered services to his companies and she questioned his business acumen as he filed for bankruptcy six times (which he defended as taking advantage of existing laws). Clinton also speculated on the reasons why Trump has not released his tax returns, suggesting that either he is not as rich as he claims to be, or is not very charitable or perhaps he does not want people to know that he pays nothing in federal taxes. Trump came back with a line that he will release his tax returns when Clinton releases the 33,000 emails she deleted from her private server - but overall she landed more barbs on the character issue.
Lastly, Trump was at his weakest on foreign policy and embarrassed himself more than once. He made the point that there needs to be more burden-sharing on global security and that the US alone cannot be responsible for creating public goods. But he kept insisting that countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany and Saudi Arabia must pay the US for defending them, boiling down discussions on weighty security matters to petty transactional terms. He said the US cannot defend Japan, “a behemoth selling [us] cars by the millions” and seemed to suggest that “China should go into North Korea” and get hold of its nuclear weapons. He said at one point that the Obama administration gave $1.5 billion to the Iranian regime - and later switched to the figure of $150 billion. In turn, Hillary reassured countries like Japan that she as President would honour mutual defence treaties.
Clinton’s objective in this debate was to stay calm and let Trump express himself fully so that independent voters can take a good look as to what they are undecided about. To that end, she succeeded. Trump will have pleased his base but may not have convinced undecided voters that he is up for the job. Clinton won this debate but whether the quantum of support she garnered today is significant enough will remain a matter of debate. The big plus for her today is that Trump yet again angered the black community, which will work to her advantage in November.
(The views expressed are personal. The author tweets @SushilAaron)