If the first of the three highly anticipated and most watched debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a boxing match, the umpires would have been hard-placed to declare a clear winner. Indeed, the first round was a testament to verbal sparring and enough below-the-belt rabbit punches were laid by both to call ‘foul’.
Americans love this sort of one-on-one debate and it has become the political extreme sport. Punch, gouge, pull out an eye, it is all good.
Issues do not really count and to paraphrase the words of Professor Higgins, it is not what you say, but how you say it.
Analyses in the United States of presidential debates also concentrate on the trivial and the irrelevant. Body language, hesitations, even the clothes worn and the facial expressions assume as much importance as what is said. And when nothing much is being said at all, it is the dexterity of the one-liner comebacks that make for the sound bites. This translates into ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ based on personal preference and the electorate is primed to respond to who bleeds and how much.
And yet, that said, they historically count for a lot in cementing public perceptions. It is no secret that JFK made Nixon look inept and clumsy and walked away with what was pretty much a lost election.
For those in the United States looking to find a suitable candidate to replace Barack Obama as well as for the world, the slurring ‘by the two of the two’ was clearly more reality show entertainment than a grasping of the nettle on actual issues like the economy, immigration, employment, taxes and foreign policy. For the world, a depressing scenario in which the most powerful job on the planet showcased contestants intent on making it personal rather than professional and mature.
Consequently, whatever the subject that came to the fore, the retorts tended to address the person rather than employ facts to send a message to the voters of where their administration would take the country.
By the end of the debate, no one was any the wiser about the road map from 2017 on.
Hillary used Trump’s endorsement of Russian President Putin to stagger Trump and accused him of encouraging Russia to hack into confidential emails. She also called him a rabid anti-woman individual who had no respect for them and hit him with a roundhouse on the Iraq war which, she said, he had espoused.
Trump retorted with a loud "Wrong" and got his licks in by attacking her on back pedaling on racism and immigration and her relatively slowcoach of a campaign as compared to his haring around the country. He underscored the crime levels in Hispanic enclaves and accused her of staying home and "doin’ nuthin".
Families were brought into it. Trump also went for Bill Clinton and blamed his tenure for the loss of job in the USA. Hillary jabbed back at him with the suggestion that it was Trump Sr. who left his son millions, indicating that without the start-up, Donald would have been more of a mallard than a millionaire.
Very often in the debate, malice seemed to flow off the stage and there was little of substance on either side. Moderator Lester Holt clearly favoured Hillary and gave her more rope but largely let the bickering flow uninterrupted.
Minutes after the TVs and social platforms whirred into action, perhaps the most telling comment came from the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who said, “Hillary Clinton clearly represents the past — and a third term of Barack Obama’s progressive policies.”
One would have thought that it was a tick in the box for Hillary but then he went on to say that Trump was the man for the job and Hillary just a slice of ‘same old, same old.’
Perhaps now that the slanging match is done and dusted, the second debate in the series will aspire to higher intellectual and content level. If it does not, then it fails to augur well for the coming elections because America will have to choose between a rock and a hard place.