Going into her first debate with Donald Trump on September 26, Hillary Clinton needed all the help she could get. The latest polls showed her tied with Trump nationally, and more ominously for her, she also tied in state polls in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Nevada, where she had enjoyed double-digit leads just six weeks ago.
As she prepared for the debate, she had no idea which Donald Trump would show up at the debate -- the obnoxious, foul-mouthed Trump, or the misogynistic bully Trump, or the deferential, statesman-like Trump that showed up in Mexico City. She prepared for all three versions of Trump.
Hillary need not have bothered. The real Trump showed up at the debate. An unprepared, boorish, and continuously interrupting Trump was more interested in defending himself than in articulating a clear vision for America.
Looking like a sedated zombie, Trump interrupted Hillary 51 times during the 98-minute debate, constantly made clownish facial gestures, and was woefully unprepared to answer foreign policy and national security questions. He perfectly fit the bill of the caricature the Clinton campaign had made of him.
Hillary ate him alive. A CNN poll of the likely voters taken after the debate found that 62% of the viewers thought that Hillary Clinton had won the debate; only 27% thought Donald Trump had won.
For the first 20 to 30 minutes Trump performed well. He lambasted unfair trade deals, and promised to punish companies that relocated their factories to foreign countries, taking American jobs.
As is his wont, he talked in generalities. When the moderator began asking specific questions, Trump began floundering. He did not answer many questions; and often retreated into his comfort zone, and repeated what he had said earlier.
She had no idea which Donald Trump would show up at the debate -- the obnoxious, foul-mouthed Trump, or the misogynistic bully Trump, or the deferential, statesman-like Trump that showed up in Mexico City. She prepared for all three versions of Trump
Every time Hillary tried to get under Trump’s skin, Trump took the bait. Trump criticised Hillary for taking time off from the campaign trail to prepare for the debate. Hillary’s response was that she did prepare for the debate thoroughly, just as she is preparing thoroughly to assume the presidency of the US.
One expected Trump to go after Hillary for her email scandal and the Benghazi fiasco. He did so only half-heartedly. Hillary, on the other hand, blasted Trump for not releasing his tax return, reminding Americans that perhaps he is hiding the fact that he has paid no taxes to finance the nation’s schools, infrastructure, and the military, among others.
Trump’s bizarre answer was that if he had paid taxes, the government would have wasted the money.
Hillary criticised Trump for peddling the Birther lie that President Obama was not born in the US, for five years. Once again, Trump falsely blamed the lie on Hillary Clinton’s 2007 campaign, and took credit for forcing President Obama to show his birth certificate.
Trump again claimed that he had opposed the Iraq war, although in an interview with Howard Stern of Sirius radio in 2002, he had said that he supported it. The moderator, Lester Holt, called him out on it.
Finally, Clinton took Trump to task for saying that she lacked the “look and stamina” to be president. Hillary reminded America that it was because of her stamina that she could visit over 120 countries as the secretary of state, and withstand 11 hours of hostile Republican questioning at the House Benghazi hearings last October.
Hillary Clinton also reminded the Americans of the derogatory comments Trump had made about women throughout his life. Inexplicably, Trump went on a tirade about actress Rosie O’Donnell at the end of the debate to end on a low note.
Nearly 100 million Americans watched the debate. Although it has been universally acclaimed that Hillary Clinton won the debate in a landslide, it is less clear if Hillary’s superb performance in the debate will move the needle in the polls.
Experts have been confounded by the Trump phenomenon. Regardless of the outrageous things he does or says, his supporters never desert him.
Hillary’s brilliant debate performance will certainly solidify her support. Whether she can attract new supporters is an open question. However, it defies logic to think that a stellar performance in the presidential debate, with the whole nation watching, will go unrewarded.
Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed is a Rhodes Scholar.