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America’s agony of choice

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 30 September 2016

trumpdebateHaving attended a couple of conferences in Miami last week, it was time to fly back to New Zealand on Monday night (US Eastern Standard Time).

The in-flight entertainment on our domestic flight to LA was excellent: we had live TV, and the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was on. It was gripping television. Not because it was so good but because it was so bad.

As we were flying over Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Trump and Clinton did their best to make me feel sorry for US voters. In this election, they are left with the choice between two undesirables.

Clinton’s performance was superficially flawless. She did not stumble. She did not show any weaknesses. She was never caught off guard.

Yet the former Secretary of State had nothing meaningful to say either and jumped from platitude to platitude, looking like the very caricature of a media-trained Washington insider. Her whole presentation looked sterile and rehearsed – and it probably was, right down to her last gesture.

With Clinton’s performance, it is not difficult to see why so many Americans are frustrated with the US political establishment. They are looking for something more grounded, more honest and less artificial than what veteran politicians like Clinton have to offer.

Trump is obviously aiming to present himself as that alternative. Yet as the debate showed, he is certainly no less dishonest than Clinton. And just as much as Clinton came across as too polished for her own good, Trump looked like an under sophisticated political cowboy.

To make matters worse, none of the two candidates had anything substantial or realistic to offer on policy. Much of the debate was about sideshows: Did Trump support the Iraq War? Would he reveal his tax return? Would Clinton release the emails she deleted? As if any of those questions had any relevance on the challenges America’s next President will face.

As I was watching the debate, one of the flight attendants interrupted me and asked how it was going. “They are as bad as each other,” I said. He sighed and nodded. “I am glad I am working so I don’t have to watch it.”

Sadly, either Trump or Clinton will be America’s next President. Or, as Niall Ferguson just put it, America’s only choice is which kind of mess it prefers.

In any case, I am glad to be back in New Zealand.

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