Last night was marked by the first of three presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the road to the White House. If the impact of those debates on decided voters is questionable - since viewers tend to have an already partisan take on the answers of both candidates - the objective was to convince the 18 percent of voters still undecided.
With that aim in mind, both candidates had a specific game plan and agenda. Clinton had to turn the page on a calamitous month of September during which she had to stop her campaign because of health issues, immediately used against her by her opponent who further alluded to her perceived deficient stamina during the debate. Clinton also needed to show that Donald Trump was not qualified to be president. She had to make the argument that his perceived instability, untrustworthiness and lack of experience was a danger to the country.
Donald Trump needed to control himself and reduce his vindictiveness. It was essential for him to show that he could develop a sound argument and ensure viewers that he had the makings of a president. The debate was a unique opportunity for him to show to the American people that he could stand equal to Hillary Clinton, bridging the experience gap while getting across the idea that the Democratic candidate should be seen as incompetent and a liar.
Clinton, therefore, had more to lose than her opponent did. Yet, at the end of the day, most will agree that the Democratic candidate fared much better than Donald Trump who regularly fell into the trap of overreactions and shady arguments. After a relatively successful start of the debate addressing trade issues, Trump lost his poise and spent long minutes trying to dodge questions about his refusal to disclose personal information about his finances and about his support of the war in Iraq. In both cases, he used inexact information and was easily cornered by Hillary Clinton.
The debate was also a unique opportunity to witness two very different perspectives on the United States and the needed policies to address existing shortcomings. Both candidates defended a radically opposed position in the field of political economy along the lines of the classic opposition between free trade and protectionism. While Clinton defended the achievements of the Obama administration which managed steady economic growth with high levels of job creation despite having inherited one of the worst financial crisis in modern history, Trump continuously repeated that Mexico was stealing jobs away from Americans. He strongly defended his will to repatriate factories inside the United States, though omitting to mention that this would impact costs of production.
Trump started to stumble when addressing inequalities. He developed a convincing answer on the worrisome state of American infrastructures and the hard living conditions of minorities in poorer neighborhoods. However, he got immediately attacked on the fact that he prided himself on his capacity to avoid paying taxes in the past, those very taxes needed to finance the infrastructure spending he was calling for.
Clinton immediately used the opportunity to attack Trump on his refusal to disclose his tax returns, placing Trump on the defensive as she explained that the Republican candidate either wanted to hide his lack of generosity to charity or – more dangerous – the companies or foreign entities to which he could be owing money. Trump’s attempt to retaliate on Clinton’s email leaks was short-lived as she did not shy from acknowledging her mistakes as opposed to Trump’s long rumblings.
Trump’s desire to appear as a successful businessman made him trip further when he called a “good business decision” his speculative investment on the real estate markets when average Americans were losing their homes. His lack of empathy might not have help him win the vote of the lower- middle class he hopes to conquer.
The opposition between the two candidates was also obvious in regards to questions on foreign policy and there again Clinton seemed more convincing. Both defended a different vision of the role of the United States in global affairs. Clinton insisted on the importance of traditional alliances and institutions such as NATO while Trump adopted the classic republican isolationist position, arguing that the United States role was not to protect the world and vilifying all nuclear protection agreements as well as the negotiations with Iran.
In that sequence again, Trump got lost in subpar nitpickings and weak defenses. He was forced to acknowledge that Clinton had much more experience than he did, although he called it “bad experience.” However, he had an embarrassing line of defense when it came to his support to the war in Iraq. While records show that he was indeed in favor of the Bush administration’s hawkish moves in the Middle East, he spent most of his time detailing his personal conversations on the topic with TV anchors and got lost into insulting comments towards former show host and celebrity blogger Rosie O’Donnell. Far from inhabiting the role of a former president, Trump ended the debate thus showing that he was still more suited to reality TV than the oval office.SHOW MORE