Televised election debates are still something of a novelty to us in Britain. We had a stab in 2010 and accidentally fell in love with Nick Clegg while Prime Minister Gordon Brown struggled and our future leader David Cameron whimsically recounted the time he once met a black man. In 2015 the whole thing seemed too much like hard work, treating us to the sight of separate interviews in which Cameron endeavored not to appear smug and Ed Miliband tried to look cool, neither succeeding. Perhaps that's why we find the US debates so fascinating, though as the dominant world power, and one obsessed with turning every aspect of public life into entertainment, it's not really a surprise eyes are drawn to America.
Watching as a kind of neutral (at least in the sense I don't have a vote and am not impacted quite as directly, though I might not be saying that when the northern hemisphere has to be abandoned because Trump nuked it all for ruining his view with wind farms), it seems impossible to understand how this crazy belief Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are comparably bad ever came about. It's an odd perception that has hung over the campaign for far too long. While there is no denying Clinton suffers from a popularity problem, to suggest she's on a par with the madness coming from the red corner is ridiculous. Finally putting her together with Donald Trump for an extended period demonstrated how off the mark it is.
Debating Donald J. Trump is no easy task. Like every aspect of the Republican nominee's campaign, he doesn't operate within normal parameters. All that political experience accrued by his Democratic rival is, if not exactly worthless, at least not the automatic advantage it would be against other opponents. How do you talk to a man who shouts over questions, embraces lying, and hasn't gotten close to articulating a plan for the Presidency? If Monday night is anything to go by, you do it like Clinton did; with calm fluency and a refusal to fall into the let's talk about Donald trap.
Clinton is not without flaws, some of which were on display during the debate. To a certain degree though, she's simply in the right place at the wrong time. A long and very public career in a partisan environment creates animosity, especially when she's associated with husband Bill and Republican bête noire President Obama. This applies even more in a year in which voter distrust of establishment politicians has skyrocketed. Sadly, gender hardly helps. Displays of assertiveness that are de rigueur for male politicians have to be very carefully modulated for women lest they come across as bossy or hectoring. It's a horrible catch-22 that sees women damned for lacking strength and damned when they show it.
There are real weaknesses of course. Clinton is still too secretive, and for all her evident competence, public performances often feel stolid. So it looked when she kicked off the debate a little awkwardly, turning to a cringingly pre-prepared barb. She went back again to the "trumped-up trickle down" line, but mercifully stayed clear of further misfiring zingers. Meanwhile, Trump was busy being Trump, talking in barely complete sentences, jumping across topics incoherently, and interjecting as a reflex.
The opening section, probably Clinton's weakest, was Trump's strongest. It's all relative of course. Trade deals gave him a few hits, though a tendency to wheel away onto another topic, often one related to himself, undermined the impact. As with the rest of his campaign, large parts of the evening were little more than extended advertisements for his business. Thus we were quickly in adjective central, Trump throwing around "tremendous", "great" and "beautiful" to describe anything coming to mind.
While Trump set off on a downward trajectory, Clinton went the other way, growing more comfortable. On occasion, particularly on race and violence, passion even crept in. She appeared more relaxed when she had the measure of her opponent, leaving him to ramble. Sometimes she called him out, but she also pivoted back to her own positions.
It was a smart move. Given enough rope, Trump hangs himself. Early attempts to maintain a steady equilibrium fractured under personal attack. It started to go wrong when his tax affairs came up. He attempted a neat switch onto Clinton's email debacle, then allowed her to get off lightly. She issued a quick apology and returned to his taxes, offering tempting bait. That he took it is little surprise. As time wore on, he found it increasingly difficult not to jump straight in whenever criticism flew his way.
While the big implosion many tuned in for never quite came, his performance dipped significantly. Race proved a tough topic, one he bludgeoned through by shouting "law and order" repeatedly and using a club he owns in Florida as proof he can heal the racial divide in America because it has "no discrimination against African Americans, against Muslims, against anybody." This followed the birther mess and a bizarre attempt to lavish praise on himself for gaining access to Obama's birth certificate, concluding he'd done "a great job and a great service."
Fittingly, temperament was mentioned at the end. Trump, according to himself, has the best temperament. He calls it "a winning temperament." Yet a man so easily provoked, unable to last the course of a 90 minute debate and incapable of handling personal criticism can hardly be said to have a Presidential temperament. Clinton on the other hand remained composed, generally avoiding frustration and smugness, letting Trump shoot away at his own feet. She might not be loved, but she has plenty of qualities and is no Trump. Hopefully enough people will realise this before November. Besides, it's more fun to watch the debates, popcorn at hand, when the threat of disaster doesn't hang so heavily over the show.