Hindsight is the most valuable teacher in life. If mistakes are not learnt the hard way, it is high time to pause and reflect. Maybe not, in the context of a Presidential debate. If there was something eerily conspicuous about the first on-stage matchup between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it had to be the “kinesics leftovers” of the grueling pre-debate speech training they underwent.
If one had been advised to be as “natural” as possible, the other chose to be “conventional” for a change albeit with much hesitation. Moments into the much anticipated debate, it was clear that both candidates were attempting to shed something about their trademark presentation and delivery style.
For the most part, Hillary braved through the debate with tenacity and remarkable guile but she did exhibit signs of making her points in a more intelligible and comprehensible manner. However, there was a lot more work to do for the former Secretary of State, who was at the forefront of the infamous Benghazi incident, which had tarnished much of her image. Hillary had to shun glaring vulnerabilities, which have been akin to her largely unpopular persona in the public eye.
In her recent Between Two Ferns interview with American actor Zach Galifianakis, Hillary was criticized for appearing too stiff and irritable under pressure although the brilliance of the show is in its sheer awkwardness.
But, here was the contrast that couldn’t be missed. When asked pointedly about her private email server scandal, Hillary sincerely doled out an unconditional apology and effectively put the issue to rest (at least until the next debate draws close). The charge was that she often carried with her the tendency to get defensive about questions involving her honesty and trustworthiness.
This time around, Hillary showed the positive effects of good debate prep. She may well reflect upon the multiple, confusing answers in the past explaining her use of a private email server. Admittedly, this was far from the usual ‘Hillary-like’ demeanor that the world has been so used to. This has, however, been a more acceptable form of ‘deception’.
Hillary also seemed to be aware that preparations are like a relief valve. She vents frustrations during preparation sessions, joking and being sarcastic in ways she never would before a national audience. After Trump defended his plans to lower taxes on the wealthy, mixing in jabs at Hillary, she joked, “I have a feeling that by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.” Trump replied, “Why not?” The moderator Lester Holt reminded Trump that he was speaking during Hillary’s allotted time.
Later, Trump boasted about his campaign travels. “You’ve seen me, I’ve been all over the place,” he said. “You decided to stay home and that’s okay.” Hillary replied that she did indeed prepare for the debate, adding that she was preparing to be president too, much to the delight of an unrecognizable audience.
She didn’t wait too long to play offense and try to get under his skin, by doing things like calling him “Donald” and questioning his net worth. Pressed on his refusal to release his tax returns, Trump repeated an oft-used line that he is facing “a routine audit” that precluded him from releasing the information.
It has to be mentioned that Hillary paid due respect to the importance of “podium behavior” and immediately got into the groove with coolness and composure. But, it also wouldn’t be wrong to disapprove of such a ‘trained, snobbish’ tactic. After all, it was simply about playing to a script and prevailing over the ‘less-privileged’ underdog (coincidentally that being Trump). Did she evince a true nature of herself? Ideologically, yes. Within the rules of the game, yes. Being a Clinton, that she is, maybe not!
Now, coming to the ‘gutsy’ one. What is the evidence for Trump of having been “conventional”? Admonished for his nonchalant and inflammatory language, Trump came into this debate with a question mark over his ability to be a statesman-like Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America. Most watching the debate were in for a rude surprise with the real-estate tycoon mellowing down on his anti-Hillary rhetoric, but only for a short duration.
He actually agreed with Hillary on what his campaign advisers would term as ‘side issues’ – climate change, racial tensions, filing tax returns etc (he retorted to these by giving his ‘side of the story’ – a clear departure from his no-holds barrel approach, even if that meant denying universal truths like global warming (he thinks it is a hoax and of China’s doing).
It was only a matter of time before Trump would explode. Hillary pressed Trump’s repeated claim, contradicted by public statements he has made in the past, that he had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. “Donald supported the invasion of Iraq,” she said. “That is absolutely proved over and over again.” “Wrong,” Trump interjected. “Wrong.”
All hell broke loose when Trump insisted again that he had opposed the Iraq war, calling any suggestion otherwise as a “mainstream media nonsense.” To this, Holt said, “The record shows otherwise.” Trump went on to appraise his own temperament, calling it “my strongest asset, maybe by far,” before attacking Hillary’s. She smiled. “Woo! O.K.,” she said, beginning her response.
Trump supporters may not want to read between the lines, but their “savior” was far from being his usual self. Why did he not press Hillary enough on Benghazi? Why did he not raise Hillary’s flip-flop on issues like same-sex marriage? What about her alleged big money donators?
He didn’t have to sound like a Bernie Sanders or a Barack Obama because he himself has wavered on a range of issues. But he didn’t trust his instinct enough and kept reminding himself of the need to score strong on the ‘big picture themes’ – jobs, economy, terrorism, immigration etc.
Another downside of his so-called ‘speech’ (Sam Harris argues that in Trump’s opening remarks, there was no trace of even one full sentence having been completed!) was that he failed to project optimism about America and his policies while also showing restrained heat and energy in the right moments to challenge Hillary because people out there wanted him to reply ‘like a President’.
Although his utter disdain for debate prep was blatantly obvious, what seemed innocuous was his stubbornness for delivering the answers he wanted rather than worrying about directly answering the question. There was, in him, an inherent belief that debates are not won or lost on policy matters since most viewers will not remember them in an hour. Trump was clearly caught off-guard on numerous occasions. He survived the Republican primary debates with ease, but should have shown the wisdom to understand the nuances of a one-on-one debate.
While Trump lost momentum during the course of the debate, Hillary discovered a new found strategy and concluded on a high note. He played into the hands of the build up and hype of this debate while she camouflaged her own self in a spectacularly trained fashion.
There is a mixed opinion on the winner of this particular debate (most hand it to Hillary for her preparedness and background experience and some to Trump for his ‘dignified’ showing). As Buck Sexton, former CIA counter-terrorism analyst and political commentator for CNN summarized: "Hillary Clinton didn't give a memorable performance, but she didn't have to. Most Americans expect Madame Secretary to drone on, joylessly, about policy, and wave her curriculum vitae like a club against her enemies. She met expectations, which was enough, and during some of the actual policy exchanges clearly had the upper hand on knowledge and background. Trump had huge areas of vulnerability to exploit in his opponent, and he barely touched her on them -- from Benghazi to her emails to the allegations of Clinton Foundation corruption. He will need a much stronger showing in his next debate or this thing will be over long before November"
But, one thing is for sure. This would go down as one of the weirdest debates in the history of US Presidential elections simply because there was a reversal of role-play. And that doesn’t bode well for an undecided voter.