If the 15 to 20 per cent of undecided voters in the United States’ electorate need help to make up their minds, the 90 minutes of the first presidential debate should have done it for them. It demonstrated a self-evident truth that the rest of the world – including leaders of the Islamic State – has known for months: That Republican candidate Donald Trump is unsuitable for the office of president of the United States. The first debate was moderated by a TV anchor who is a registered Republican, but that fact did little to help Mr Trump. His performance was predictably bizarre.
Fact-checks revealed a blithe disregard for veracity, and he unwisely emphasised controversial and untenable stances from his playbook, from the causes of job losses owing to trade treaties to tax policy favouring the rich to protectionist trade policies to help big business. He was unable to credibly defend his refusal to reveal his tax records. His indefensible comments against minorities, women and the poor throughout his campaign made him an easy target for Hillary Clinton and he compounded this weakness by describing his profiting from the housing bust as “good business”, and expressing partiality for the stop-and-frisk policy to contain inner city violence — a policy that New York jettisoned because it resulted in racial biases (he was wrong on the facts here too). There were some outright lies as well, such as his claim that he opposed the Iraq invasion and that he never claimed climate change was a hoax perpetrated by China. His fidgety body language, blustering delivery, punctuated by frequent sips of water, and juvenile interruptions did him no favours.
In sum, he made it easy for Ms Clinton to display poise and, as the debate wore on, treat him like a delusional maverick. Her inaccuracies were minor. She combated personal remarks about her temperament and stamina – an avoidable reference to her recent illness – with a factual recounting of the number of countries she had visited and hours of meetings she held as secretary of state. She wittily dismissed his tax policy as “Trumped up”. Mr Trump’s one strong suit – his entirely valid accusation that members of her staff had pleaded the 5th amendment in the federal investigation involving the use of her private email server while in office – was weakened because of her emphatic acknowledgement that she had made a mistake. This issue accounted for the whittling of an eight-point lead after the Democratic convention to a two-point margin ahead of the first debate.
To be sure, Ms Clinton’s performance could not be called brilliant; in a debate that was of fairly low standard, her initial responses were tentative even as Mr Trump started off more self-assuredly, and she regained her footing only in the second segment. It was hard not to miss the professorial charisma of a Barack Obama or the sparkling repartee of a Bill Clinton. Her attributes were accentuated chiefly because of Mr Trump’s patent deficiencies. At 62 per cent, the verdict among the debate-watchers was in her favour even though this does not reflect national polls since 41 per cent of the audience were Democrats. However, if this debate is any evidence, it would be surprising if she did not improve her slender lead going forward.