Trump lost the debate – but does it matter?

Last night’s debate showed, yet again, that Donald Trump is not the right person to lead the United States of America for the next four years. A record number of Americans tuned in to see a candidate unprepared to answer questions he must have known were coming, incomprehensible at times on issues of national security and economics and clearly flagging after the 45 minute mark in the 90 minute debate.

Hillary Clinton is, like everyone of us, flawed and her mistakes have been well documented by the national and international media over the years. That Trump failed to land a single effective blow on the hugely questionable use of her private email server or the serious questions around the Clinton foundation’s influence during her time in the State department may be the biggest criticism you can make about his debate performance. Trump surrogates were quick to proclaim his weak show as yet more evidence of his main selling point – that he is a Washington outsider – a deflection that fails to answer concerns about how he would fare in tough negotiations with foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin, putting aside his self-confessed admiration for the Russian autocrat.

One of Clinton’s best moments came when she countered Trump’s thinly-veiled attempt to question her health by pointing out that not only had she properly prepared for the debate, she was prepared for the Presidency. Trump, in contrast, was clearly not prepared for last night’s debate. In the bun fight of the Republican primary debates he was able to get away with winging it without doing his homework, last night was painful evidence that the same is not true in a one-on-one format, it also shows he has been wise to avoid holding press conferences over the last few months. Trump famously prefers to be read short briefings rather than cross-examining texts himself. All of the evidence we have suggests a Trump victory would see a staff-run Presidency on a scale never before seen, far beyond what happened during the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan was smart enough to surround himself with highly intelligent people from across the Conservative spectrum. Donald Trump has not shown similar wisdom in his staffing choices, from Corey Lewandowski to Paul Mannafort he has displayed a tendency for bringing in people of erratic and questionable judgement and dubious connections to foreign powers. That should concern every American voting in November.

It will be at least Saturday before we know if Monday night’s debate leads to any real change in the polls, but many observers will not be surprised if it has negligible impact. Donald Trump has continued to defy conventional wisdom in this election cycle. After the significant changes of direction on policy, disastrous alienation of vast segments of the population, rudeness and downright stupidity of many of his public statements he should by all rights be heading for a landslide defeat. Instead, pre-debate polls suggest the race has narrowed to a virtual dead heat, with Clinton only holding the sliver of an edge.

Of course, this race is not just about Donald Trump, Clinton’s long and torrid history in the public eye and her recent health scare have all contributed to the race tightening in the last month. She is the Washington establishment candidate without doubt. Except she is a woman, and her public scandals and even her health have all been seen through that prism. When Trump was asked to explain what he had meant by saying Clinton didn’t look presidential he pivoted to her stamina, ironic for someone who by the second half of the debate was leaning onto his podium for support and downing more water than Marco Rubio ever managed in a speech. Yet everyone knew he had been referring to Clinton’s gender. A female commentator on the US breakfast news the following morning said watching the debate was like watching every job interview when a man comes in a and blusters successfully and the woman who has prepared and is totally ready for the role is passed over.

The extent to which gender is or is not playing a role in this election will be debated by historians. Given one of the most successful (in terms of implementing their agenda) and strong leaders democracy has ever known was Margaret Thatcher and there have been numerous other extremely successful female leaders out of a relatively small sample size it seems ridiculous to still be asking this question in the centre of the free world. Yet, as Julia Gillard’s experience showed in Australia, and Trump’s own politically incorrect and often offensive remarks about women have also demonstrated in this cycle, gendered criticism of women is not necessarily a political death knell for other politicians, suggesting it still has a residual currency amongst some in the general population. In an election as tight as this one, it could just make the difference, perhaps showing the limitations of the American dream itself.

There are too many intangibles in this strange election, in an even stranger year. Societies are shifting and politics changing in ways no one foresaw, the comfortable march of that broad and indefinable concept of ‘progress’ has taken some erratic turns of late.

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