Clinton Wins The First Debate, Probably Maybe

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Well that was all a little weird, wasn’t it? Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clashed last night in the first presidential debate in Hofstra University, and, in a bizarre twist, it was simultaneously exactly what everyone expected and nothing like what we thought it would be.

It felt as if the presidential race has been on hold for the past few weeks. Mr Trump has had momentum in the polls and this felt likely to be Mrs Clinton’s best chance at stopping that momentum, and she managed it, but not emphatically.

Aside from a fifteen minute stint where Trump found his feet on trade, and particularly NAFTA, which he called ‘the worst trade deal ever signed in this country’, Mr Trump never seemed in control. NAFTA could yet prove to be a fruitful policy target for Mr Trump, and it’s one of the ones that could be most important for future debates, unless he finds substance elsewhere in the next month.

The trade deal was signed by Bill Clinton but negotiated by his predecessor George H W Bush. The deal was used by Bernie Sanders, especially in the rust belt states of Ohio and Michigan, as a stick with which to beat Mrs Clinton, and now it appears that Mr Trump has taken up that mantle. He failed, however, to press home that brief advantage, and Clinton managed to largely evade serious damage.

In truth though, neither of them did serious damage. If Trump let Mrs Clinton get away with her perceived weakness on trade, then Mrs Clinton let an embarrassment of riches go sailing past. Mr Trump appeared to brag about being ‘smart’ for not having paid federal income tax, she didn’t press him; he evaded a question on whether stop and frisk was racial profiling twice, she didn’t press him; he lied about the IRS audit meaning he couldn’t release his tax returns, she didn’t press him. You get the picture.

Mrs Clinton had a relatively easy night of it, too, though. There was only a passing mention of her e-mails and nothing on her much-debated Clinton Foundation. It could have been much more uncomfortable for her, but neither the moderator Lester Holt nor Donald Trump took it there. Hillary Clinton had an easy night because she is a knowledgeable policy maker who was hugely well prepared, but also because she was allowed to have one, by both the moderator and her opponent.

It may also have been down to the atmosphere in the university, at least in part. Lester Holt began the night by admonishing the audience and asking them to avoid making noise while the candidates were debating, which lent the debate stage a distinctly odd feel.

Donald Trump feeds off the crowd, and he looked visibly uncomfortable for the first portion of the debate, appearing to have developed a nervous sniff since the last time we saw him on stage. Mrs Clinton, meanwhile, remained her usual measured self, which is positive for those who already support her, but it won’t do anything to dispel the accusations of her robotic nature that come from across the aisle.

And this, is the key takeaway from last night’s debate. While Clinton controlled the debate stage for most of the evening for those interested in traditional policy debating. But the point is that Mr Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, interested in that, and they never will be. Mrs Clinton won the debate by remaining calm and sticking to policy, while Mr Trump remained in blowhard mode, offering no insight into what a Trump policy might actually look like, beyond vague talk of illegals, law and order, and criticism of trade deals. But that is what his audience craves.

At one point he accused Mrs Clinton of dealing in soundbites, but in fact it was he who trotted them out. We were treated to references to Rosie O’Donnell, political hacks, the mainstream media, illegal immigrants, rigged democracy, endorsements from the military, China, Russia. If there were a Trump bingo it would have been stained in ink from the earliest stages of the evening.

So Mrs Clinton won the debate, but the fight indeed goes on, because to Donald Trump it doesn’t matter who we think won. If there were one excerpt that would sum up the events of last night, it would be the following, from Hillary Clinton:

“Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.”

Actually, I guess that about sums up the Presidential race so far, doesn’t it?