Debating America

September 28, 2016 12:39 am | Updated November 09, 2021 02:00 am IST

The first of three U.S. presidential debates lived up to the hype as the world was treated to the sight of an experienced politician, and first-ever woman nominee for the White House, take on a brash and surprisingly popular property tycoon. While most media analysts seemed to hand victory in the debate to Democrat and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, numerous online polls, most of them based on anonymous voting and non-scientific response targeting, appeared to suggest that it was her Republican rival Donald Trump who won. To an extent, the terms of the debate, set by moderator and NBC News anchor Lester Holt, ended up favouring Ms. Clinton. Mr. Holt tipped the scales towards Ms. Clinton when he brought up Mr. Trump’s refusal to reveal his tax returns, the “birther” controversy over Barack Obama’s place of birth, Mr. Trump’s alleged support for the Iraq War, and his comment on Ms. Clinton’s “look”. Yet, what featured significantly less was Ms. Clinton’s use of a private email server, her responses to the controversy over the 2012 Benghazi attack, and broader criticism of the Clinton charitable foundation and her proximity to Wall Street, issues that would have put her on the back foot. As it turned out, she emerged from the brawl with poise and a lawyer-like command over the tempo of the debate as she held out several baits for Mr. Trump, which he took.

Ms. Clinton forensically focussed on Mr. Trump’s weaknesses, including his preference for tax cuts for big businesses over income support for the middle class, his past business and personal dealings that hinted at racist values, and the destabilisation potential of his foreign policy proposals on NATO, Iran, North Korea, China and Mexico. The deeper question that the Clinton-Trump clash continues to pose, however, is: How has a candidate such as Mr. Trump come this far? Why has his habit of offending politically significant minorities, including Mexicans, African-Americans, Muslims, the LGBT community, the differently abled and women, not dented his popularity? In part, it comes down to sheer showmanship, and Ms. Clinton, for all her measured responses and detailed elucidation of policy prescriptions, falls far behind Mr. Trump on that count. However, the more worrisome force behind the rise and rise of Mr. Trump is that his candidature hints at continuing nationwide disenchantment over political dysfunction in Washington. That Americans may be willing to risk it all and throw a metaphorical grenade at the federal government to shake things up after years of partisan bickering and policy logjams suggests that their leaders must work to heal a bitterly polarised electorate and temper this distaste for the federal governance architecture.

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