Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton squared off against billionaire businessman Donald Trump in the first head-to-head debate between the two presidential nominees on Monday night in New York. The feverishly anticipated encounter drew the largest audience ever for a U.S. presidential debate, nearly 81 million people, a number that does not include millions of others who watched on social media or in large groups, such as at bars and restaurants. Given the stakes, that number is understandable; and, given the stakes, Trump’s performance was not.
There are two types of work that go into debate preparation: that of the candidates, who must anticipate questions and prepare answers — in particular, the one-liners that will be reference points for commentary and analysis after the event — and that of their surrogates, who seek to dampen expectations of their candidate so that they can claim victory when the debate is over. It is telling that in the runup to the event, Clinton was assiduously preparing, studying her opponent and holding several mock debates while Trump was said to be avoiding advance work, preferring to go with the off-the-cuff attitude and style that served him so well during the Republican primary debates. It is also worth noting that while this preparation (or lack thereof) seemed to match Trump’s persona, news of it effectively lowered the bar for his performance: It implied that he did not have to master subjects so much as avoid horrific gaffes to win.
For most viewers in the United States, the debate was more entertainment than electoral fodder. The majority of voters have already made up their minds about who they will support in the November ballot and they watched the debate to confirm their views of each candidate. As Trump famously boasted at a rally in January, “I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The words he uses, the claims he makes, are not important; it is his status as an outsider and a successful businessman that matter to his supporters — as well as their belief that Clinton, for whatever reason, is not fit to be president.
But a significant number of voters — nearly 20 percent — claim to be undecided or plan not to vote for the Democratic or the GOP candidate. That is now the real target of the two campaigns, and for that group, preliminary indications are that Clinton prevailed in Monday night’s contest. “Winning,” in this case, means convincing viewers that her opponent does not have the temperament to be commander in chief or a grasp of the issues to lead the country. Polls conducted immediately after the debate showed Clinton succeeding: A CNN survey gave her a 62-27 victory, while a Public Policy Polling assessment had her ahead by a 51-40 margin. Most reputable analysts say that snap analyses are suspect and the real results will not be evident for a few days, but those preliminary numbers line up with more general assessments of pundits and politicians, even those who support Trump.
For non-American viewers, the candidates’ temperament and understanding of the issues matter, but so too do their policies, and from that perspective, the debate provided ample cause for alarm. When considering U.S. alliances, Trump said that “We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia. They do not pay us. But they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service.” There are several reasons to be troubled and even offended by that statement. First, in the Japanese case, it is just plain wrong. Japan pays nearly ¥190 billion a year in host nation support alone. Second, it reduces U.S. alliances to a purely transactional level. Our alliance reflects shared values, shared interests and a shared history, if not a sense of interdependence and shared destiny. To believe that this relationship is nothing more than a business transaction diminishes our partnership.
When asked about nuclear weapons, Trump first said that “I would certainly not do first strike,” but later added, “At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.” That answer, along with comments earlier in the campaign about letting U.S. allies go nuclear and about nuclear policy more generally, suggest that he does not understand the singular importance and significance of these weapons.
On trade, Trump seems eager to tear up existing deals or to court trade wars with tariffs to eliminate the U.S. trade deficit. Sadly, Clinton agrees with Trump on the value of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but many experts see her opposition reflecting tactical political considerations, unlike Trump, who does not seem to understand how trade works.
Most significantly, as befits a former secretary of state and one of the prime movers behind the U.S. “rebalance to Asia,” Clinton understands the true meaning and value of U.S. alliances and her country’s role in the Asia-Pacific region. As she explained to the audience — in a way that felt as though it was aimed at foreign viewers — “I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them.” That is what the world expects from the U.S. president. We hope American voters appreciate that fact.