It’s hard to imagine either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump made many converts with their performances Monday evening at Hofstra University, despite over 80 million Americans tuning in. But the debate did its job in getting Americans talking about the candidates and the issues.
By most accounts, Trump won the first half hour of the debate. He was able to hang all the problems of the past decade around Clinton’s neck and set her up as a piñata for those who believe America has been too politically correct at home and too weak abroad for too long. And she had no effective response.
She is the experienced politician who had her hand in creating many of the policies Trump is shredding. She is not shy about offering her candidacy as an extension of the Obama presidency, a reign mired in negative approval ratings until recently (this spring, when voters started considering the alternatives, Obama’s approval rating finally climbed above 50%).
The remaining hour-plus of the debate belonged to Clinton. She showed a commanding knowledge of the issues and she was wise enough to recognise when Trump was ready to be Trump. In large part, she stepped aside and let Trump strangle himself in tales of his past racism, sexism, birther logic and bankruptcy abuse. Perhaps his greatest sin was revealing that he was proud of not paying any federal tax on his vast income.
The contrasts were extreme. Clinton demonstrated why she is one of the best qualified candidates in decades (at least, as measured by traditional standards). Trump demonstrated his ‘shoot first, aim later’ style that many feel disqualifies him from getting anywhere near the Oval Office, much less the nuclear football.
The realities here appear clear: America is deeply divided on the direction of the country, perhaps as divided as in the turbulent 1960s. And the choices are not encouraging. These are two deeply flawed presidential candidates. Pro-Clinton and pro-Trump zealots are hard to find. It’s much easier to find the haters, those who would vote for Lucifer rather than vote for Clinton or Trump. Polls suggest about 70% of likely voters think the US is on the wrong course today. The question Americans must answer is which is better: more of the same or a roll of the dice on an unknown new direction?
The American system of governance is built on checks and balances. Some who make the case for Trump do so knowing that Congress, the Supreme Court and the civil servants who run the day-to-day bureaucracy can keep America from lurching into the ditch. When tested with Franklin Roosevelt’s illness and Ronald Reagan’s final year, this system worked. The counterargument is that none of the checks and balances kept George W Bush from going to war without justification or from crashing the economy.
Character matters here; so does context.
The backdrop of Monday’s debate was a week in which two more black men were fatally shot by police under controversial circumstances. Does that advance Trump’s argument for reviving stop-and-frisk policing practices? Or does it argue for Clinton’s identification with the black community and her views on racial bias?
There are many such twists throughout this campaign. Every time Trump lets his mouth run ahead of his brain, he prosecutes Clinton’s case that he is unfit to be president. Every time Clinton discusses policy, she prosecutes Trump’s case that it’s just more of the same.
The race appears to be so close it’s within the margin of polling error. Clinton’s perceived debate win will likely give her a small bump, but not enough to change the trajectory of a photo finish. The pollsters and statisticians continue to rate Clinton’s chance of an electoral college victory. But are they right?
Whoever wins likely will face a divided congress that will make bridging the national rift impossible in four short years. Trump is 70 years old; Clinton is 68. As they trade jabs about releasing health records, neither has the air of someone who will have sufficient grounding to seek a second term. For some Americans, the good news is we may get a do-over in 2020. It’s been that kind of a political season.
Photo: Getty Images/Spencer Platt