Judging by the immediate reaction on social media, I wasn’t alone in finding Wednesday’s NBC Commander In Chief forum a profoundly depressing affair. On the worst interpretation, both Clinton and Trump were allowed to tell straightforward lies. At best, highly dubious comments went unscrutinised.
Trump’s claim that he was always against the 2003 Iraq war (citing an Esquire interview from 2004!) has been debunked so many times that one wonders why he dares to persist. Perhaps lightweight moderator Matt Lauer’s silence offers the answer.
Likewise Clinton’s promise to not send in ground troops to Iraq or Syria – when plenty are already there – was extraordinary, especially given that she was addressing veterans. Numerous fact-checking sites debunked both answers and several more. It doesn’t bode well for the TV debates, although hopefully Lauer’s humiliation will encourage moderators to grow a pair.
I’ll be surprised if many votes were swung. Predictably, Trump fans pointed to Clinton lies and complained of media bias against their hero. Ditto, Clintonites were aghast that Trump had yet again managed to get away with a bare-faced lie in a presidential debate.
U.S. politics is incredibly polarized and when the mainstream media are repeatedly guilty of such dereliction of duty, it is no wonder the audience are drawn to ever more partisan post-truth websites. With every day, voters seem to be becoming more entrenched.
One moment did stand out, however, as having significance for the race ahead, with the potential to swing votes. Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin was jaw-dropping and could prove to be his biggest gift yet to the Democrats.
It played perfectly into their narrative that the Russian President is trying to subvert the election towards Trump. With the FBI already investigating, Obama raising it at the G20 and hacker Julian Assange threatening more revelations about Clinton, this story will run and run. Trump’s comments will be highlighted ad nauseum in wall-to-wall attack ads.
Moreover, it will encourage more scrutiny of Trump’s deeply controversial NATO policy – which would suit Putin – and prompt further questions about Russian business interests. Again, Trump’s failure to produce transparent financial and tax records provides an open invitation for Clinton to claim he has something to hide.
Given that, outside a small, unrepresentative band of white nationalists, Putin remains as loathed in the States as any ex-KGB Russian leader, this is electoral madness. This is just about the worst possible tactic to employ when Trump needs to bring GOP sceptics on board.
Don’t be surprised if the effect is to encourage more Republicans to endorse either Clinton, Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin. (Although Johnson’s failure to know where or what Aleppo is probably put paid to his hopes of winning over Trump’s foreign policy critics).
With around 60% of the electorate viewing Trump unfavourably, (over 40% strongly so), he cannot afford to lose potential supporters like these. Notably, Mike Pence doubled down today on Trump’s statement that Putin is a better leader than Obama. I simply cannot see how this works in their favour.
Sure, most Republicans hate Obama, but the current president has a solid 50% approval rating. He is certain to hit the campaign trail hard, and showed how effective his attacks on Trump could be at the convention. My instinct is that Clinton’s post-convention bounce owed more to the Obamas than either her or Bill’s performances.
And yet, that convention bounce has disappeared, confirming once again what a flawed candidate she is. There has been a definite trending towards Trump in the past fortnight as he behaved more like a normal candidate and for once, allowed Clinton to suck up all that negative publicity.
By bringing Putin, Russia and all those serious questions about his own foreign policy to the fore, Trump may have brought that positive spell to an end.
This weekend’s anniversary of 9/11 will doubtless bring Trump’s ridiculous comments into focus again. How George W Bush was negligent, how it wouldn’t have happened on his watch and his repeatedly debunked lie that Muslims celebrated in New Jersey. Don’t be surprised if those positive poll trends move into reverse.