Friday 23 March 2018

David Usborne: 'Donald Trump’s laziness led to complacency - and that’s where Hillary Clinton won the first presidential debate'

Trump whined about Clinton's ads against him. Was repeatedly defensive

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton after the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton after the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016
David Usborne

David Usborne

Just about the only thing Hillary Clinton didn’t accuse Donald Trump of at the debate on Monday night was rank laziness. He was a racist, he was a dissembler, he was a misogynist.

Mr Trump apparently prepared for the first of three presidential debates precisely as everyone had suspected he had - hardly at all. What he did do, was use the occasion to rehash the themes he offers his supporters at rallies on the debate trail.

Hillary Clinton accuses Donald Trump of racism as gloves come off

That, he did well. He gave it to her arguably most effectively on trade policy, declaring that the NAFTA treaty “signed by your husband” in 1993 "was one of the worst”. He charged her with having been asleep at the wheel when Isis began its rampage across Iraq and Syria.

Those already determined to vote for him will have glowed in front of their television sets.  For a moment in the early running, it almost looked like he was going to pull off a presidential, restrained version of himself. He was a little vivid describing the crime crisis afflicting cities like Chicago, but vivid and visceral has worked for Mr Trump thus far. For the most part.

The country is a mess, American foreign policy is a mess and Ms Clinton, who has been part of the establishment running it for the last thirty years, was thus responsible. And when Ms Clinton talked earnestly about the economy and tried to coin a phrase about Trumped-Up Trickle Down economic policy, it’s doubtful it stuck with many viewers.

But what was happening was actually something slightly different. Ms Clinton was deliberately letting Trump be Trump, in the certain knowledge that she would soon be able to dangle bait before him and that he would take it and from thereon out he wouuld start to veer off the rails. Which is exactly what happened.  A Trump train crash indeed ensued.

That does assume, of course, that he had a script for the debate. But that seems doubtful, since he failed to say a word about the Clinton Foundation and the alleged conflict of interest that donations to it posed for Ms Clinton when she was Secretary of State - a favourite topic for many of his supporters - and allowed the email controversy to slip by in a matter of moments.

Ms Clinton, by contrast, came to Hofstra University understanding that this was her chance to advertise the long list of allegations against Mr Trump that have been plastered over the mainstream front pages for weeks but which many voters haven’t been paying attention to.

She raised his history of failing to pay contractors. She hit him on his four bankruptcies. She absolutely let him have it on comments he has made about women. “This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs,“ she said.

She even told a not-heard-before story of a one-time competitor in one of his beauty pageants whom he allegedly called "Ms Housekeeping" because she was Mexican. Ms Clinton knew that that woman had since won American citizenship. She named her and, added smartly, “you can bet you she is going to vote this November”.  He was peeved. "Where did you find that?  Where did you find that," he asked, attempting to interrupt her as he had throughout the night. 

She was so prepared. Which, in a way had worried her advisors before. Would she appear like an automaton? Possibly, she smiled a bit too much. Possibly, she came across as condescending.

But if he had spent just a few hours preparing, he would have seen the worst moments of the debate coming. She pushed his buttons, and every time he reacted. He huffed and sighed and look grim. He repeatedly found himself on the defensive. He relied on his talent for blurting statements of alleged fact, that on their face sounded daft. That included the flat-out assertion that she does not have the stamina to be president, a claim he loves to make on the trail. “As soon as he travels to 112 countries...then he can talk to me about stamina,” she responded, to applause.

He said he knew the questions about his refusal to release his tax returns would come, yet his attempts to explain it away were tortuous. “There's something he's hiding,“ she declared. He even replied to her claim that he hadn’t paid federal taxes for years that that proved he was a good businessman. “That makes me smart”.

And he allowed himself to get drawn deep into the weeds over his record of being the leader of the birther movement attempting to delegitmise Barack Obama as the first black president. 

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“Woo, OK,” was the reaction of Ms Clinton when he, in a particularly colourful rant, made the point both about stamina and then attempted to tell a story about witnessing her once losing her temper which, he said, proved she didn't have the temperament to be president. "I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament,” he said - drawning laughter in the hall. But she did not take the bait. Instead she used the attack to turn it back on him about his temperament if he is to become commander-in-chief.

“A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes,” she said.

The test of his temperament will come when the two meet for a second debate on 7 October. He told reporters afterwards that he was proud that he had resisted bringing up the marital problems of the Clintons and the infidelity record of Bill Clinton. It sounded like he regretted not having done so.  If he wants to be president he had better resist slinging that out there next time. And he had better prepare himself. Because she surely will.

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