He won’t release his tax returns, she won’t release 33,000 missing emails. She deplored “Trumped-up trickle-down” economics and promised to make companies and the rich pay more; he wants to slash their taxes to stimulate investment and repatriate jobs “stolen” by the Mexicans and the Chinese. He said she “doesn’t have the look” of a president. She said he lacked “the right temperament to be commander-in-chief”. The first of three US presidential debates between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump was testy, personal, inconclusive and, in parts, trivial. Polls taken afterwards showed US voters believed Mrs Clinton won. On points she did, narrowly. But with 42 days to go until November 8, the race remains wide open, with the confrontation exposing the opponents’ glaring weaknesses.
In the first 30 minutes, Mrs Clinton came across as an unreconstructed socialist, clueless and hapless on encouraging investment, jobs and prosperity. Her sole prescription for growth was extremely dubious: higher taxes and more red tape to ensure corporations and the rich pay more. Mr Trump’s position was more credible, arguing for substantial corporate tax cuts to help reverse the flow of capital and jobs offshore.
Unfortunately for Australia, one of the few points of agreement was the candidates’ opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If ratified, the TPP would free up trade between 12 Pacific rim nations including the US and Australia, stimulating export opportunities and wealth. When she visited Australia in 2012, Mrs Clinton rightly described it as the “gold standard of trade deals”. She has since disowned it. Mr Trump, a rank protectionist, is an arch opponent of the agreement. The last hope for the US embracing the TPP rests with Barack Obama, conscious of his legacy, persuading the lame-duck congress to pass it between November and January.
As the potential leader of the free world, Mr Trump showed an abysmal grasp of international relations, his most serious weakness in the debate. After eight years in which Mr Obama has been weak and ineffectual in that sphere, Mr Trump, alarmingly, had nothing constructive to add to his vague thought bubbles about Germany, Japan, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia acquiring their own nuclear weapons or paying for US protection. His disinterest in America’s Asian pivot was obvious and of deep concern to Australia, which must sort out the US marine rotation agreements for northern Australia before November.
In debating style, Mrs Clinton had the better lines and was steadier. When Mr Trump claimed she lacked the stamina for the presidency she retorted that “as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire” he could talk about stamina. He, in contrast, was blindsided when she attacked him for describing various women as pigs, slobs, dogs and Miss Housekeeping and for hanging around beauty contests. He missed the chance to attack the Clinton Foundation and the Whitewater scandal.
However unfavourable compared with the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 or Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, these showdowns will focus voters’ minds after a long and largely unedifying contest. The battle for the White House still has a long way to run.