Debate Debrief.

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Trump and Clinton face off last night in Las Vegas. 

Both Clinton and Trump had their best debate, but the Democrat came out on top.

Last night the final presidential debate of this marathon of a campaign took place at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For the first half an hour, we were treated to something we hadn’t seen so far in this year’s presidential campaign: an actual policy debate!

The forceful moderating of Fox News’ Chris Wallace led the candidates to discuss some actual issues. The debate touched upon the Supreme Court, gun control, abortion rights, and immigration; and for this first half hour, both candidates did pretty well.

For the first time, Trump put forward some actual policy, and it was clear that he had been well coached in what he needed to say to reassure the Republican base. He was clear about how he would appoint pro-life Justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, putting the issue of abortion rights back into the hands of individual States; although his knowledge of what actually constitutes a partial-birth abortion was lacking. He was clear on his opposition to any form of gun control, and made a big thing about his endorsement from the NRA. He then went on to talk about how he was the only one of the two candidates who could reduce immigration, reinforcing his commitment to building the impossible border wall, and once again falsely claiming that he had been endorsed by ICE. Throughout this, Hillary Clinton was calm and collected, giving strong policy answers, which were typically almost opposite to Trump’s views.

At this stage, it would be fair to say that Trump and Clinton were neck-and-neck, both debating strongly, and putting forward strong policy based answers.

But then, Trump decided he’d had enough of being Presidential, and the classic Donald Trump re-emerged. He became short-tempered, and began to constantly interrupt his opponent.

In one exchange, Clinton was asked about the details of her paid speeches which had been revealed by the hack on John Podesta’s emails. She managed to successfully pivot onto a point about Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, and whether Russia was behind the hacking. Trump then stated that Putin didn’t have any respect for Clinton or President Obama, to which Clinton responded: “that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as President.” In typical Trump style, the only response he could conjure was “You’re the puppet.”

This was pretty much how it went for the rest of the debate, Trump veered a long way off-piste from his original plan to look more Presidential and put forward actual policy (a plan to which he was actually adhering for the first 30 minutes of the debate).

In a question that Trump was surely expecting, he was asked about the sexual assault allegations that have been levelled against him in recent weeks. However, despite the sheer obviousness of the question, he didn’t appear ready for it. Trump claimed that the allegations have been “largely debunked,” suggesting that he isn’t completely denying them; and once again claimed “no one has more respect for women than me,” which is clearly untrue regardless of the veracity of these latest allegations. Clinton countered with a stirring answer headlined with, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger.” This was perhaps one of the few moments, where we have seen some real emotion for Clinton in these debates, and she did well.

Both candidates struggled in questions about their respective foundations, but Clinton then came out on top in a question on experience. When Trump reused a favourite line about how Clinton had been in public office for thirty years but hadn’t, in his opinion, done anything, she had a strong (albeit pre-prepared) response. She did well to compare her career with Trump’s, explaining how their respective life experiences made her the better candidate. Trump had little in response, and by this point he was largely beaten.

This meant that he wasn’t well prepared when asked whether he would accept the result of the election. In answer to this he produced the soundbite that will be played over and over again, the only real takeaway from this debate: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now,” suggesting that he would consider not accepting the result. Clinton responded that the remarks were “horrifying,” and put forward a catalogue of times when Trump had also cried ‘rigged’, including when he didn’t win three Emmys in a row, to which he interjected: “should’ve gotten it.”

Although Trump began the debate well, and acted calm and Presidential, this soon changed, to the extent that at times the debate resembled a slanging match between a brother and sister. Petty responses like “you’re the puppet” and “should’ve gotten it” only add more ammunition to those who say Trump doesn’t have the temperament to be President. They would be right. It seems fair to say that anyone that can get as riled up by Twitter as Trump, shouldn’t have the nuclear codes.

Overall, although this was probably Donald Trump’s best debate performance, it won’t have done much for his chances in this election. He started well and things were looking good for him, but he quickly lost interest in proper debate and things descended into name calling, with Trump using his closing statement to call Hillary Clinton, “a nasty women”. For Clinton, all she had to do was turn up, and barring any revelation about a serious scandal she would be ok. She did this. For Trump it was a last chance to appear Presidential. Although he did this for the first thirty minutes, the way he lost his cool later on completely wrecked his progress.

Now the only question is how close this election will be, because surely Trump cannot win. I remain of the view that the popular vote will be relatively close, but it looks as though Clinton could win a huge victory in the Electoral College. All we can do now is wait and see.

In terms of the Supreme Court, this is the most important presidential election in years.

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The Supreme Court.

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on 13 February, no one quite expected just how bloody the battle to choose his replacement would come. However, given that Scalia was one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court, and the Republicans hold a majority in both houses of Congress it was, in hindsight, rather predictable.

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Antonin Scalia, whose death created a Supreme Court vacancy.

 

Nonetheless, it is rather rare for the majority party in Congress to not even consider a nomination made by the sitting president, as was the case when the Republicans in the Senate made clear that they would not be considering Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland under any circumstances.

 

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President Obama nominates Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

On the face of it Garland was a consensus pick. There is little doubt that Obama could have chosen a far more overtly liberal justice in order to fill the vacancy left by Scalia. However, he recognised that with his party in the minority in the Senate, he would have to appease Senate Republicans somewhat. What he didn’t count on however, was that the GOP would have no inclination whatsoever to even consider his nominee.

The rationale of Senate Republicans was that withholding confirmation for Garland was necessary in order to, “protect the will of the American people”.Suggesting that with the Presidential election ongoing, the new President should be the one who is allowed to pick the next justice. However, this was somewhat undermined by the comments of two Republican Senators.Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona suggested that Garland should only be confirmed if Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency, because Garland is less liberal than any nominee Clinton is likely to put forward, suggesting that if Clinton win then, “we ought to approve him quickly.” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah concurred with Flake’s view. Comments such as this suggest that Senate Republicans were motivated far less by democracy than by partisan concerns regarding the direction of future legislation.

Realistically, the reason for the unwillingness of Senate Republicans to give Garland a confirmation hearing was due to his significance to the future direction of the court.

Following the death of Scalia, the court is locked 4–4 between Democratic and Republican appointees. If Garland were to be confirmed then there would be majority of Democratic appointees for the first time since 1969. This has serious significance for the direction of future legislation.

However, Merrick Garland is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how significant this Presidential election is to the future make-up of the Supreme Court.

It has been suggested that the next President might be able to appoint up to four Supreme Court justices, with Donald Trump even suggesting that they might be able to appoint five if Garland hasn’t been confirmed prior to the inauguration.

The reason for this is that many of the Supreme Court justices are now getting to the point where they might consider retirement. The left-wing justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now 83, whilst centre-left justice Stephen Breyer is 78. If Clinton is elected come November, then expect these two to retire. Likewise, the relatively centrist Anthony Kennedy is now 80, and surely nearing the end of his career.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy are all nearing the end of their careers on the bench. 

Each of the last four Presidents has had the opportunity to appoint two Supreme Court Justices. This means that already it is looking as though the next President is going to have a outsize influence on the makeup of the court, meaning a sizeable influence on policy for a generation.

Earlier in this election, Donald Trump took the slightly unusual step of releasing a list of prospective Supreme Court justices, who he would look to appoint were he elected in November. Unsurprisingly, most of the list had impeccable conservative credentials. Trump’s reasoning for this is that he wants to appeal to Republicans who want to protect recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United which prohibits the government from restricting the election spending of corporations; and District of Columbia v. Heller which further protected the right to bear arms. Whilst the also wants to attract voters who are keen to see the rolling back of Roe v. Wade and Obamacare. Conversely, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are on the complete opposite of this debate.

Both candidates clearly understand the importance of this election in terms of the direction of legislation in the future. Given that Supreme Court Justices are given a lifetime appointment to the court, these decisions will affect the direction of legislation well beyond the presidencies of either Trump or Clinton.

This only serves to make this election even stranger: the fact that the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history, will have perhaps more impact on legislation than any of their predecessors.