It was a tale of two debates. And for each candidate, it was both the best and worst of debates.
For the first half-hour, Donald Trump wiped the floor with Hillary Clinton. It looked as though the New York property mogul would win not only the debate but the presidency itself there in Hofstra, New York, in one debate.
He spoke in the powerful, plain language of everyman.
Clinton began with characteristic politician waffle about building the right kind of economy.
Trump’s appeal was visceral and direct: “We have to stop our jobs being stolen from us and our companies leaving us.”
There is, of course, a lie at the heart of Trump’s appeal. Free trade has been good for the American economy. A dynamic economy destroys old jobs and creates new ones all the time. In so far as old jobs have been lost, this is much more because of technological change than trade.
Nonetheless, Trump’s message on trade is powerful and straightforward: America is being taken for a chump. In a very bad sign for Australia, Trump demonised the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and witheringly and accurately accused Clinton of flip-flopping on the issue.
Trump truthfully said Clinton had described the TPP as “the gold standard of trade agreements”, a remark she made, as it happens, on a visit to Australia when she was secretary of state.
Clinton dishonestly claimed she never said the TPP was “the gold standard” but merely hoped it would be. “I was against it when it was finally presented,” was her lame response.
Trump promised to cut taxes to stimulate investment, growth and jobs. Clinton promised to raise taxes on the rich and on corporations, because her priority was to produce a “fair economy”.
She will raise the minimum wage, provide paid parental leave and ensure women get equal pay to men. Trump promised to cut regulation. Polls show that US voters think Trump is better on the economy than Clinton.
As usual, there was something outrageous, with him accusing the Federal Reserve of acting politically in keeping interest rates low. This too echoes a concern of older Americans trying to live off the interest on their savings.
This whole section of the debate was won decisively by Trump.
But then, in a debate judo move of great artistry and astonishing effectiveness, Clinton turned the whole debate around. Though her brand is stolid, wooden reliability and stoic attachment to uttering the right cliche of the right zeitgeist, she began to provoke Trump with personal attacks. She certainly had a lot of material to work with and Trump allowed himself to be provoked.
First, she tackled him on the birther controversy, the insane argument Trump made for years that Barack Obama was not born in the US and therefore shouldn’t be president. Only in the past two weeks has Trump accepted Obama was born in the US.
Trump had no answer to this except to say Clinton’s campaign in 2008 began the birther controversy, a ditzy claim of no possible use to Trump. But he went on and on about the alleged friends of Clinton who had spread the birther myth and ended up accusing Clinton of having been too mean to Obama. Of all the things he might attack Clinton for, being mean to Obama was surely the most irrelevant and ridiculous.
Then Clinton accused him of having something to hide by not releasing his tax returns. For a moment, it looked like Trump might pivot back to the attack when he said: “I’ll release my tax returns if she’ll release the 33,000 emails”, which Clinton mysteriously deleted from the private server she wrongly used as secretary of state.
The email scandal is a huge vulnerability for Clinton. But Trump forgot all his attack lines and got bogged down in a ridiculous defence of his own company’s practices and his own tax behaviour.
The same pattern repeated itself later when Clinton, with ample justification, accused Trump of a history of insulting, demeaning sexist behaviour and remarks.
Trump showed an uncharacteristic flat footedness. He couldn’t pivot to the attack but got caught up in a ludicrous defence of an argument he had with Z grade entertainer Rosie O’Donnell.
These were Trump’s weakest moments, and there were plenty of them.
In what was a pretty weird debate, there was not much real policy substance. The most reassuring remark for Australia came from Clinton, who said: “We have mutual defence treaties and we will honour them.”
Trump dialled back his criticism of US allies. He wants to support them all, but the US spends an enormous amount of money defending allies and they must contribute more, or maybe they will have to defend themselves. Though he has often expressed this crudely, the idea allies are free riding on the US is undeniable. But this election won’t be won and lost on foreign policy, where Clinton has a strong lead.
Overall, I scored the debate about a draw, though CNN polls had voters saying Clinton had won. But I still think a draw is the right call, and it probably favours the challenger.
Trump did nothing to rule himself out of the presidency and he had no trouble on policy questions. Unexpectedly, it was the personal that tripped him up.
The underlying structure of the contest remains unchanged. Trump is the outsider promising change.
Clinton is the ultimate insider, the registered adult offering a responsible alternative to Trump.
Beyond that, she lacks a narrative or any compelling rationale for her candidacy. Being the registered adult and safe alternative to Trump didn’t work for any of the heavyweight Republicans who ran against him in the primaries. Whether it is enough for Clinton is the $64 million question not at all resolved by this gruesomely compelling debate.