Donald Trump and the third Presidential debate

7 Nov 2016

Can’t afford to beat the bush any more

How significant have the three televised US presidential debates been in winning voters for the two candidates? Have these three showdowns between opposing candidates been enough to sway the undecided voters toward one candidate or the other? Do these televised presidential debates aid the general public in discerning the nuanced differences between the two competing candidates? Those who think that they do, often cite the presidential debates between Kennedy and Nixon (1960) and Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter (1980) as glaring examples to corroborate their views. While others who don’t consider these debates as playing a significant role in swaying the electorate.

The US election campaign broadly comprises of two parts. Firstly, the intraparty debates are followed by primary elections to decide one candidate from each political party. Secondly, debates between the candidates from the competing political parties are held amidst the relentless presidential campaigns, eventually followed by the general elections. The presidential debates between Donald Trump and Clinton were anxiously awaited as people around the world were keen to see the two completely opposite candidates clash. Clinton being an apotheosis of eloquence and a political adeptness while Donald Trump as an unorthodox, political “outsider”, who does not give much weight to being politically correct. In Trump’s own words, “we cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.”

During first presidential campaign, Trump was very much overshadowing Clinton at the outset but later on, Clinton put forth a better overall performance. As for the second debate, Trump was very well prepared but his “Access Hollywood” tape scandal completely undermined his amply prepared performance for he failed to present any plausible explanation to the tape scandal. The third presidential debate took place in Las Vegas Nevada on October 19. Trump’s supporters were rather hopeful, as far as his performance was concerned, that he would, undermine Clinton’s arguments on multiple issues but unfortunately, he couldn’t. Moreover, even the choice of the moderator for the debate – Chris Wallace from Fox news, the news channel having reputation of being friendly toward Republicans and conservatives -– was not effectively utilized by Trump in his benefit. Wallace asked rather strict questions from Clinton; she responded with utmost confidence and finesse of and adept politician. However, there were several instances when Hillary seemed vulnerable. For instance, regarding the question about the immigration policy, Clinton responded that she would not deport the foreigners living illegally in the US. This was a great chance for Trump to criticize Clinton, while focusing on questioning the legality of her stance and/or highlighting the irony that Clinton despite being a Lawyer was advocating something that was impossible to justify legally. Trump could have underscored the fact that he was not against the migrants but only the “Illegal” migrants. Despite, he wasted the opportune moment; he merely stuck to his usual wrath laced comments. However, Clinton did not miss any opportunity to criticize Trump; for instance, his comments on Muslims were greatly scrutinized and played up by her. Moreover, Trump failed to defend or deflect Clinton’s attacks, which could have been easily turned around to his advantage if he had been a little sound. Another way Trump could have turned tables on Clinton was by adopting a patriotic rhetoric in response to Clinton’s criticism of him being harsh against the immigrants. He could simply have portrayed himself as being biased in favor of Americans; a person who gives top priority to Americans and their interests. He could consequently have cornered Clinton by underlining her preference for illegal immigrants (foreigners) over the interest of her own countrymen and terming it as a conspicuous example of misplaced priorities. This juxtaposition would have transcended him above party lines, but he failed to capitalize on it. Similarly, when the moderator questioned Clinton about her private speech to the Brazilian bank where she talked about open borders and open markets, which was disclosed by the WikiLeaks. Clinton instead of responding to the asked question comprehensively began talking about how Russian President Putin has been interfering in the US elections. Trump, again, had a chance to catch Clinton off- guard at that instance. He could have criticized her for deviating from the original question but instead he came out as defensive; clarifying his nonexistent relationship with Vladimir Putin, accompanied by a verbal crusade against Clinton and her Putin phobia. Only if he had managed to maintain the focus of the discussion on the revelations of wiki leaks instead of allowing Clinton to making up a conspiracy theory regarding his collusion with Russian president, he could have criticized her for adopting a hostile stance against Putin, despite her perception of being an epitome of peace and diplomacy. He could have corroborated his view by pointing out her foreign policy fiasco regarding Libya and Syria and her responsibility for the terrible fate of American ambassador at Bin Ghazi. Unfortunately, Trump missed all of the chances provided to him by Clinton’s not so comprehensive answers and consequently, failed at picking on Clinton’s shortcomings during the debate that could have been helpful in gaining him more support. Adding insult to the injury, when the moderator asked him if he would accept the election results, instead of responding soundly with logical answers, he made a grave mistake by saying that only time will tell. He could just have responded affirmatively. Or he could have said that that he certainly would accept the results upon one condition; if the elections are free from all kinds of rigging.

Moreover, Trump’s “alleged” sexual harassment scandals with various women were was brought up by Clinton and consequently presented as an evidence for him being unfit for the position of President. Trump could have drawn a stark contrast between “accusations” of his sexually deviant behaviour with Clinton’s failed foreign policies and their horrendous consequences, such as the inception and rise of ISIS; the international migrant crisis.. He could have rubbed it on her as to despite being a lawyer herself, she is the one supporting “illegal” immigrants. But alas, he did not, rather expectantly. These are just some of the opportunities missed by Trump to sway voters.

Despite of Trump’s subpar performance, a number of analysts and scholars have praised Trump for his perspective laced on- policies, especially the economic and foreign policy. On the other hand, according to the pre-election polls, Clinton’ support number is still slightly higher than Trump. However, you still never know what is going to happen in the actual elections as according to some sage political analysts there are many Trump supporters at heart who are shy of supporting him publicly and vocally. Some analysts liken the US Presidential Election to Brexit vote in UK, where polls seemed to get it wrong and it was eventually the silent voters that proved to be the ultimate determinant.

Published in “Pakistan Today” on 6 November 2016.

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