Hofstra University, located in Long Island, New York, has hosted American Presidential debates during the past three cycles. That may be somewhat fitting since it also hosts the Center for the Study of the American Presidency (with Indian-American Meena Bose as its Director). But after the latest round of prizefighting, you have to wonder if that programme will ponder over the matter of debates that do little to further the political conversation.
That was more or less the conclusion at the end of the bout between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, each bringing their signature brand of sparring to the ring, and neither managing to land that critical blow that would even technically knock out the other.
If a decision had to be awarded on points, Clinton would emerge the victor. She was composed (mostly), did her wonk act and pretty much attacked Trump’s soft spots, including his taxes, or the non-release of those details. Most importantly, she managed to get through 90 minutes without a coughing fit. Trump, meanwhile, did what he crafted during the numerous primary debates, which was never quite responding to direct questions and instead pivoting to matters he actually wanted to address. Once again, he proved that he has been the most inarticulate debater seen on the American political scene in recent history, and bluster doesn’t quite pass muster.
In recent days, there’s been a surge in support for Trump’s unusual campaign, enough to statistically give him an edge in the US Presidential Electoral College which dictates who gets to occupy the Oval Office. But one fallout of this debate is almost certainly to be that his momentum will be arrested. In fact, it probably needs to be incarcerated after this particular performance. He avoided policy specifics as if they were toxic. This is actually the Trump pattern, established through a chain of campaign rallies, where the faithful forgather. But before the million of viewers, including many that may still be uncommitted; there was evasiveness on display, that may well cost him in polling.
When it comes to untrustworthiness, as with national polling, Clinton has managed the feat of actually matching Trump. But she certainly scored more points in this debate, simply because she talked details.
But beyond partisan punditry and the barrage of instapolls online, the average viewer would have suffered through an hour-and-a-half of reality television masquerading as a meaningful dialogue.
There was little memorable in the much-hyped television event. There were some jabs: Clinton accused Trump of living in his “own reality" and Trump countered with his iteration of her “bad experience.” But overall, if their lines were scripted, there ought to be someone out there shouting to those who created these with “You’re fired!” (to borrow the signature line from Trump’s The Apprentice).
For those in India, this debate had very little to offer; the country was not even mentioned a single time. But what is clear from the words of the two debaters, neither will make New Delhi very comfortable – Clinton, since she led strategies as Secretary of State in West Asia and the AfPak region that have left these conflict zones worse off than when she assumed office; and Trump, since, as with his speaking style, is a loose cannon who could fire in any direction.
Will this debate actually matter in the long term? There will be a shift towards Clinton, though how pronounced it will be remains to be measured. But, there are still over 40 days till 8 November, and two more debates, and plenty of opportunities for pitfalls and pratfalls for the pair.
For those who tracked the 2012 cycle, there’s the reminder that Republican Mitt Romney decimated his rival Barack Obama in the opening debate. And we know how that ended up.