What we are seeing in the aftermath of the first Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a unanimous declaring by the media of Clinton as the clear winner of the debate. Headlines such as "The first debate featured an unprepared man repeatedly shouting over a highly prepared woman", "Donald Trump’s Wild Night", "Donald Trump Struggles to Deal With Debate Loss", "Donald Trump's first presidential debate confirmed he has no idea .." – were rampant across the print and online media.
However, one must first consider what the meaning of “winning” in this case would be. Trump was sloppier than Clinton, but the latter evaded questions and went on tangents just as much. In fact, I am glad that I could watch the rather cringe-worthy debate on YouTube later at 2.0x speed, rather than live. Further, it was also obvious that the Democratic platform had more for working and middle class Americans in terms of welfare and progressive taxation. However, in the fight of the Republican platform versus the Democratic platform, the final vote tallies demonstrate a winner of the ideological battle better than any debate has. George Bush was polemically destroyed by, first, Al Gore, and then, John Kerry in the debates, the second time seeming utterly incompetent in comparison to his opponent despite being the incumbent President.
Trump's lack of a concrete platform at the debate did no damage to his standing among Republican voters. His platform, though unclear from the debate, is merely the standard Republican platform, with certain deviations. Trump is anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership (unlike his party), and his discourse involves a more blatant racism and Islamophobia than the usual Republicans would prefer to project.
There is nothing Hillary Clinton said against Donald Trump that the mainstream media (other than Fox News) has not already been hammering out to the viewers. CNN conducts a fact check in real time when Trump speaks with annotations; such as “(not correct)”. MSNBC routinely has its hosts aligned strongly against Trump – popular support entirely out of the picture. All the scandals she mentioned – his debt, his bankruptcies, his payment lapses, his tax returns, his unfair business practices – have been the stuff of tabloids, dailies and cable news alike for the past one year. There was nothing potentially damaging to Trump that was uttered by Clinton that could form a new highlight, or bring him down.
On the other hand, Trump got to mention the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street, the rigged Democratic primary, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement by Bill Clinton, the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act and the two Clinton crime Bills that wreaked havoc on the African American and Latino communities — while broadcast on multiple channels at the same time in front of a record breaking audience size — things the media was loath to discuss (especially the TPP, in which most media owning corporations have a big stake). Trump's platform or the lack thereof makes no difference to his voters, while Hillary's questionable platform makes all the difference to hers. Hillary still has to convince people about her pseudo progressive platform. She needed to put on a good show and she didn't.
Trump: Your husband signed NAFTA, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry.
Clinton: Well, that's your opinion. That is your opinion.
Trump: You go to New England, you go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want, Secretary Clinton, and you will see devastation where manufacture is down 30, 40, sometimes 50 percent. NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country. And now you want to approve Trans-Pacific Partnership. You were totally in favour of it. Then you heard what I was saying, how bad it is, and you said, I can't win that debate. But you know that if you did win, you would approve that, and that will be almost as bad as NAFTA. Nothing will ever top NAFTA.
Clinton: Well, that is just not accurate. I was against it once it was finally negotiated and the terms were laid out. I wrote about that in...
Trump: You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it's the finest deal you've ever seen.
Trump was able to repeatedly nail Clinton on her e-mails, an issue Democrats would rather treat as a closed case:
"I will say this. We have a situation in this country that has to be taken care of. I will release my tax returns — against my lawyer's wishes — when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release..."
"When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth so they're not prosecuted, when you have the man that set up the illegal server taking the Fifth, I think it's disgraceful. And believe me, this country thinks it's — really thinks it's disgraceful, also."
When it came to the contentious Democratic primary battle between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Trump had this to say:
"But what did we learn with DNC? We learned that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. That’s what we learned."
When it came to foreign policy, Clinton could only point to the US-Iran nuclear deal that was brokered by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry as proof that she believes in diplomatic solutions rather than war. Further, pointing out that Trump had initially supported the Iraq War (just as she had done till as late as 2006) does not have the same bearing as it does if one was a US Senator who was given top secret information that was supposed to contain damning evidence of “weapons of mass destruction” (a report that Bernie Sanders had found completely unconvincing), and had to vote on authorizing the War as a public representative. She cannot hold herself to the same standards as Trump the private citizen who had access to only the information the media peddled (war drums by the outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News).
There are two key demographics that Clinton needs to convince: Independents, who comprise 42 percent of the electorate (compared to 30% Democrats and 28% Republicans), who backed Sanders against Trump or Clinton 65 percent-35 percent.
The second important category is millenials — those who grew up in the late 90s and the 2000s. Comprising 31 percent of the electorate, most of whom backed Senator Bernie Sanders while he had still been in the race — and are now disenchanted with what they see as a rigged primary and may not turn out to vote, or are leaning towards Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. With both the above groups, Clinton has been polling terribly.
It becomes even more difficult for Clinton to make her case as a progressive, as an essay in The Observer on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings with details of the donors who bankrolled the recently concluded Democratic Convention in Pennsylvania shows.
George Soros’ son, Alexander, who gave $200,000; Priorities USA, a SuperPAC funded by George Soros, gave $1.5 million; Bank of America gave $1 million; Chevron gave $25,0000; Citigroup gave $100,000; Morgan Stanley gave $75,000; Wells Fargo gave $500,000; former Goldman Sachs CEO Donald Mullen who helped cause the 2008 economic recession gave $100,000...Michael J Sacks donated $300,000.
For a political party that nominated Clinton, who hilariously claims to be the champion of Wall Street reform, these prolific donations from the financial industry suggest otherwise.
Blackstone Holdings gave $125,000 to the Democratic National Convention...Dow Chemical became a sponsor of the Clinton Global Initiative.. Dow also donated $250,000 to the DNC this year. Independence Blue Cross, a health insurance company that has actively lobbied against a single-payer healthcare system, donated $1.525 million...Facebook donated $1.45 million to the convention. Google donated $500,000. Twitter donated $250,000.
In the debates during the Democratic primary, Clinton had swung to the Left to try and contain the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders (who ended up winning 46 percent of the total pledged delegates).
This particular debate showed no sign of the progressive Clinton, and the centrist Clinton was rather uninspiring. She may as well have sent Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein in her stead.
Ultimately, Clinton is still ahead by only 3 points in a poll conducted after the debate. Her demonstration of her superiority over policy details, and laying out her record of years of experience, did not succeed in covering up the weakness of her candidacy, her scandals, the fact that she is considered one of the most corrupt politicians in the US, and the fact that she is not viewed as honest and trustworthy by a huge chunk of the public. Trump’s candidacy is far from “finished”, despite how the media chooses to portray it. Watch the debate yourself – you will see what I mean.
The author is a research scholar in modern and contemporary history at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.