Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The debate that made losers of us all

The debate that made losers of us all

A good pitch for the next Hillary Clinton advertising campaign might be to highlight the relative ease with which she could approach negotiations with Washington’s fiercest political opponents. She has certainly gained valuable experience from taking on the combative and wildly unconventional Donald Trump in the presidential campaign, as was evident at the second debate.

Given the overwhelming public focus on sexual abuse-celebrating comments from 2005 that surfaced just prior to the event, Trump evidently saw his only option for approaching the contest was to seek to tar Clinton with the same brush, largely via association with husband’s past history with women.

The strategy here was twofold, with each element seemingly contradicting the other: Trump wanted to reposition his behaviour as firmly within the American male mainstream, while also goading Hillary Clinton into some sort of vote-costing reaction. It looks to have failed on both counts, though not through lack of trying: Trump staged a press conference with Bill’s accusers prior to the debate, and invited them to attend the proceedings.

Clinton frustrated Trump by keeping her cool. She refused to directly respond to invocation of her husband’s record, except where it concerned matters of policy, such as defending his past criticisms of Obamacare and his record on the economy while president. This was in stark contrast to Trump’s reactions in the first debate, after which he continued to chew on Clinton’s bait into the wee hours of the morning.

In fact, the former secretary of state showed a remarkably unflustered demeanour throughout, broken only by laughter at what she saw as blatant falsehoods uttered by Trump, which came to more than a few according to most fact checkers, or to those with just a basic familiarity with recent events. [fold]

For Trump, then, the best he can hope for from this meeting in St. Louis is that he has staunched the flow of support from a campaign that has bled profusely in recent days, The audio of those lewd remarks prompted many in the general voting population and in his own party withdraw backing from the candidate, either because it was one black mark too many, or, as the cynics – and I'm one of them – contend, because it was struck against a demographic that, unlike ethnic minorities, for example, simply can’t be ignored. There is now a real fear that a lot of Republicans simply won’t turn out to vote, or might even opt for Democrats in congressional contests as well as the presidential one.

Beyond this assessment it seems pointless to seek a winner or loser from tonight’s debate. It is more tempting to repeat a common joke from the current campaign: there was only one loser and its name was ‘America’ (given the great external interest in the campaign this could be extended to ‘the world’).

With the focus of public attention leading into it, it was always unlikely that this event would prove anything resembling the clash of ideas that the term ‘debate’ entails. It was instead more of an exchange of personal insults and perhaps the most vivid illustration of the criticism of American politics as being nothing more than a schoolyard popularity contest with television cameras. This is indeed quite an apt analogy in light of Clinton at one point referencing a noticeable ‘Trump effect’ of increased bullying in American schools, which, in the interests of fact-checking once again, is indeed being seriously studied in some quarters.

With all necessary concessions made to impartiality, this Trump effect has resulted in a presidential contest nastier than any in recent memory. At one point tonight, Trump injected real venom into his claim that Clinton would ‘be in jail’ if he were president and – contra the US constitution – exercising direct control over the country’s laws. Elsewhere he said Clinton had ‘tremendous hate in her heart’.

Politics is not for the faint of heart of course, but this debate showed – again – that Trump has dumbed down American politics. Confirmation of this could be found in a viewing of Best of Enemies, the documentary account of Gore Vidal and his conservative counterpart William F. Buckley’s visceral debates around the 1968 US presidential election, which made its timely US television debut in the week prior to Trump and Clinton’s second encounter. Yes, Vidal and Buckley do eventually resort to name-calling and even threats of violence but nonetheless the documentary is a reminder of a lost spirit of intellectualism in US politics that seems to have reached its nadir in the current campaign.

While Trump was clearly determined to take the rhetorical fight to Clinton after his performance in the first debate was heavy criticised, his command of the political sleight of hand still remained poor. Twice he attempted to move the conversation toward talking points that many Republicans had wanted to see more of in the first debate, but on both occasions via sharp and awkward turns away from his defences of accusations that had been levelled against him; he segued from the recent video controversy to Clinton’s supposed weakness on fighting ISIS, and later moved from his late-night tweeting habits to Benghazi.

Trump also made a clumsy play for supporters of Bernie Sanders by repeatedly quoting the former Democratic candidate’s critique of Clinton. Yet he has a better shot at gaining these than he does African-American and Hispanic voters, who he tonight attempted to conjure into existence by merely invoking their collective names three or four times, without offering any specific policies tailored toward them. Trump did indeed seem to view these voting blocs as synonymous with some sort of folkloric danger, given that he always referred to them in conjunction with America’s supposedly crime-filled and decrepit inner cities.

And Clinton? She did fine, given that there was no real opportunity to delve too deeply into the policy minutiae with which she is exceedingly comfortable, and that she wanted to keep recent black marks against Trump fresh in voters' minds. Despite her flaws, the likely next president showed she was the only serious candidate long ago. Trump saw his only means of defeating her as ‘going low’ as Clinton herself put it in this debate, but this seems to be failing.

Trump has again revealed himself as the Republicans’ worst enemy. And yet it can also be argued that he is a product of the party’s own impulses; of its small government focus; its anti-intellectualism; its distrust of government insiders; and its regressive attitudes toward women. Trump has also, however, demonstrated he lacks the ability – and, yes, the intellect – to move beyond past indiscretions or match the formidable challenge of Clinton.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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