Presidential Debate #2 Recap: Making America Not Unproud Again

d2splitscreen“I never said I’m a perfect person,” began Donald Trump’s hostage video on the matter of his Access Hollywood hot mic proud-to-be-a-celebrity-licensed-to-commit-sexual-assault pickle. Actually he has made such a claim, in the form of a relentless 16-month rodomontade of unadulterated greatness (and it turns out in his case “unadulterated” also means without adult qualities). So perhaps this admission of imperfection qualifies as an atmospheric blast of humility in the rapidly decaying orbit of Trumpworld?

Sunday’s town hall-style debate would answer that question, though signs over the weekend pointed to a Trump who was digging in, not digging out. And in any event, you know your pre-debate stage setting is less than ideal when your daughter splashes back into public view with reassurances that Dad is “not a groper” (a comment Ivanka actually made back in May after a Times story about his history of unwelcome advances, but the comment obviously has a second life now).

Meanwhile, Hillary skated in looking like the luckiest candidate in election history, with highly unfortunate new leaks about things she said behind closed doors on Wall Street overshadowed by the latest orange menace. But we knew she’d have to face the music Sunday evening: even if Trump turned out to be too erratic to coherently call her out, certainly moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz would make sure someone did.

On to the play-by-play…

8:05 The first question comes from one of the allegedly uncommitted voters: Do you feel you’re modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s yoots? (May not have actually said “yoots.”) Clinton opens with sunny optimism: “Our country is great because it is good” (a line resurrected from her July convention speech) and “I want us to heal our country and bring it together.” Trump, at first flummoxed as to how to go negative on that, allows that “I actually agree…with everything she said” but then turns on a dime to tick off all that is wretched about the country: Obamacare; trade deficits; the Iran deal; the border; law and order; inner cities. The bow he ties it all up with is expressed in an intriguing way: “My whole concept was to make American great again.” All these months I thought it was a slogan, but turns out it’s a concept! Makes complete sense now.

Anderson Cooper uses the question about modeling good behavior as a springboard to launch himself through the windshield of the Access Hollywood bus: “You bragged that you sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”  Trump: “No I didn’t say that at all, I don’t think you understand it.” You did, and we do. Trump soldiered on: “I’m not proud of it, but this is locker room talk” and by the way not to change the subject but “you have ISIS chopping off heads.” Doesn’t say if that’s happening in locker rooms. I’ve been in a few locker rooms in my time, but can’t recall the kind of banter that involves chirpy admissions of criminal battery. Also intriguing is the notion that it’s not a crime if it’s locker room talk. Imagining O.J. Simpson on the stand in his own defense saying “yes I told Kato Kaelin I did it, but it was locker room talk.” If the locker room is lit, you must acquit. Cooper presses: so are you saying that you did not actually grope women without consent? Trump: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” But have you ever done those things? “No I have not.” Anyone believe that?

When it’s Clinton’s turn on this she goes after him, but with more restraint than many expected: the hot mic video showcased “Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women” and in doing so revealed “exactly what he is.” She spins it into a broader prosecution of Trump’s moral failings – “targeting immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, Muslims, and others.”  She sums up with the night’s second use of “we are great because we are good.” We’re only 15 minutes in, so if she keeps up the pace we’ll have to endure that tired line 12 times.  Trump with a quick rejoinder: “It’s just words folks, it’s just words” (he’s got a point there) and a promise to help “the African Americans, the Latinos, the Hispanics.” The Latinos and the Hispanics!  This is a man on the move.

8:17. Martha Raddatz summons us to hear another voter question, and it’s Jeff from Ohio on Facebook asking if the campaign has changed Trump. One of the moderators embellishes: When you walked off that Access Hollywood bus were you a different man, or are you the same pile of steaming boorishness today? (I may have taken a few liberties with the transcript here.) Trump repeats the locker room defense, and then takes up the matter of Bill Clinton: “There’s never been anyone in the history of politics in this nation who has been so abusive of women.” I’ll go out on a limb and venture a guess that screwing a woman you own as a slave might qualify as a tad more abusive, but you make the call. Adds that Hillary “should be ashamed of herself” for being mean to women her husband cheated on her with. Clinton replies with the it-was-great-the-first-time-but-now-getting-sort-of-tired Michelle Obama line about going high when they go low, then namechecks some campaign outrage greatest hits: the Kahns, Judge Curiel, disabled Times reporter, birtherism. (Is this going high?)

Trump replies yeah, I’ll see your Judge Curiel and raise you a Sidney Blumenthal. Then, discussing the 2008 campaign, makes an abstruse reference to the “vicious commercials” involving “Michelle Obama talking about you.” (Axelrod tweets that never happened.) Transitions into a rant about WikiLeaks, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and of course “the 33,000 emails,” landing in a pretty frightening place: “If I win, I’m going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”  Clinton: good thing someone with Trump’s temperament is not in charge of the law. Trump: “Because you’d be in jail.” I’ll give him two points for the quick comeback, but deduct 10 for inability to grasp that a threat to use powers of office to jail an opponent is sort of the antithesis of functioning democracy.

8:25. Raddatz with a question for Clinton about emails: “You don’t call that extremely careless?” Clinton gives a version of the terse answer on this that she rolled out in the first debate, and adds there’s no evidence anyone hacked my server or that classified material ended up in the wrong hands. If she’s elected I hope someone will explain to her the difference between an absence of evidence and evidence of absence. Trump pounces on the email: Chelsea’s wedding, yoga pants, 33,000 deleted emails. A few sentences later says she should be ashamed of herself for deleting 39,000 emails.  Apparently Clinton found a way to delete 6,000 emails in the course of about 30 seconds on a debate stage. Impressive!

At this point we’re a half hour in, and it’s pretty much been all mudslinging, all the time. Trump is varying back and forth between hinged and unhinged, but he’s giving as good as he’s getting (and when Hillary Clinton is involved, there’s plenty to give). This will go more clearly Clinton’s way if they can just climb out of the mud and hose themselves off with some policy.

8:29. Town hall voter Ken takes us there with a question on Obamacare.  Clinton goes first, and while she’s talking we get the weird optic of Trump looming from behind her. It feels a bit creepy. More than a bit. Meanwhile Hillary dives head first into the Obamacare river of wonk, acknowledging its problems and justifying its features one by one. I want to make it work, she declares, and cautions that if it’s repealed as Trump proposes, all its benefits are lost. Trump goes for the subtle rebuttal: Obamacare “is a disaster, you know it, we all know it … it will never work.” Tosses in a couple of nonsensical supplementary gambits: (1) Canadians all serious have their operations here (an evidence-free assertion), and (2) “Unless you get hit by a truck you’re never going to be able to use it” (a coherence-free assertion). Anderson Cooper tries to pin Trump down on specifics of what he would do instead, Trump helpfully informed America that “you are going to have plans that are so good.” Personally, I’m in favor of those kinds of plans.

8:37. A town hall voter question on Islamophobia.  Opening with his “we can’t be politically correct” shtick, Trump invents facts about the San Bernardino attack, demands that Muslims spy on each other, and wraps up with the stale critique of Obama and Clinton for their alleged refusal to say the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” After Clinton makes the useful observation that we’ve had Muslims in America since the founding of the republic, moderator Raddatz puts the ban-on-Muslims thing on the table. Trump rather crassly asserts that Captain Kahn is a hero who “would be alive today” if I were president. Segues into extreme vetting, leading Raddatz to interrupt requesting that he answer the question. “Why don’t you interrupt her?,” Trump testily asks Raddatz. “Because she answers the fucking question so I don’t fucking have to,” we pretend that Raddatz replies.

8:44. On refugees, Clinton hits Trump for advocating religious tests and manages to work in an oh by the way for the eight hundredth time he was for the Iraq war, we have it on tape. Nuh-uh, says Trump, it’s been debunked. Has not. Has too. Trump: Also she wants amnesty for everyone, and she has judgment so bad (like Bernie said) that she should never be president. We’re back in the mud.

8:47. Raddatz with an online question about newly leaked excerpts of Clinton’s paid speeches – the part where she says one needs to maintain public and private positions on complex issues. The question: is it ok for politicians to be two-faced? Clinton offers up a bizarre answer about how she was really referring to Abraham Lincoln and passage of the 13th Amendment after viewing the movie Lincoln. Wisely moves off the subject and turns the answer into a broadside against Putin and the Russian government for undertaking hacking to influence our election. Adds that “they are not doing it to get me elected” and connects it to Trump’s unreleased tax returns. Trump replies that she’s caught in a lie and she’s blaming the it on “the late great Abraham Lincoln.” It’s an effective reply because her Lincoln play seemed imbecilic. But in his inimitable style Trump undermines his little win here with a series of irrelevant tangents: “I don’t know Putin…I know nothing about Russia…I have no loans from Russia.” Then boasts that he has a “very, very great balance sheet” – the true measure of a man, I always say.

d2chairman

Hillary answers a question; Donald ponders the greatness of his balance sheet.

8:53. A voter question on making people pay their fair share of taxes gives Trump an opportunity to freely associate: We’re cutting taxes on the middle class, our taxes are just about the highest in the world, and Clinton will raise everybody’s taxes, massively. Trump’s assertions here being fundamentally false, Clinton celebrates the fact that “he lives in an alternative reality.” It’s pretty clear Trump doesn’t understand tax policy in anywhere near the depth one would need to have an actual conversation about it. Oh, but wait: he tells us “I understand the tax code better than anyone who’s ever run for president.”  Also shares the news that “I love depreciation.” Depreciation loves you back.

9:03. A long stretch on Syria and other matters Middle East is kicked off by a voter question asking what the U.S. should do about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. Clinton gives a knowledgeable if somewhat evasive answer that pins it all on “the ambitions and the aggressiveness of Russia.” Reminds us that Russia has “decided who they want to be president and it’s not me.” Trump spews a few unhinged statements about nuclear programs, declaring that the U.S. is old and tired, while Russia “is new” and “has gone wild” with their nuclear program. When Raddatz tries to corral Trump back to the original question he lets us know that “Syria is Russia” and by the way when it comes to Aleppo, it has already fallen. (Um, no.) Clinton, asked about use of miltary force in Syria, says no ground troops, just special forces; also wants to arm the Kurds. Trump complains to the moderators that they are not shutting her up soon enough when she is answering.

9:14.  A voter asks of the candidates: Do you believe you can be a devoted president to all the people in the United States.  The questioner being African American, Trump reflexively goes into a “black guy asked a question so I’ll give a black-guy answer” mode, replying that sure he’ll be president of African-Americans, inner cities, Latinos. Clinton used her rebuttal to make her own case for her record of working with others, but she missed an opportunity to call Trump out for the implicit but manifest racism on display.

9:18. Cooper asks Clinton about her deplorables comment: how can you unite a country if you’ve written off tens of millions of Americans? Her effective response: “My argument is not with his supporters it’s with him.” Trump won’t leave it there; instead he levels an amazing charge:  “She has tremendous hate in her heart.” Wow. Imagine what she has in her pancreas.

9:20. Cooper asks Trump about his recent 3 am tweets. Trump somewhat cleverly spins the 3 am tweet thing into a diatribe on what happened at 3 am in Benghazi, then pivots to an endorsement of Twitter, which “happens to be a modern day form of communication,” so regarding his use of it, “I’m not unproud of it.” Personally I’m not unstunned at what a muttonhead the GOP has nominated.

9:24. Clinton is asked about the Supreme Court – the most important aspect of selecting a justice. Clinton says the current court “has gone in the wrong direction.” She makes mention of good things she hopes the court will do and bad things a Trump-appointed court might do, but she misses an opportunity to draw a much sharper contrast on the implications of who names justices. Trump comes back with some Scalia worship, a slap at Clinton for planning to ditch the Second Amendment, and a request that she self-fund her campaign like him. He’s just jealous that she doesn’t need to.

9:29. A voter named Ken in a red (and I do mean red) sweater asks how energy policy can meet energy needs while minimizing job loss for fossil power workers. Trump paints an apocalyptic picture of an energy industry under siege and about to bring down the republic, then seems to suggest it will all be cool if we just get into the “clean coal” business, big time. Clinton follows with a cogent, substantive answer covering fossil fuels, renewables, and climate change, and revealing that she knows a hell of a lot more about this than he does.

9:33.  And finally, one last voter question: putting the rhetoric aside, can each of you name one positive thing that you respect in the other. One person in my viewing group guessed Clinton would point to the fact that Trump loves his third wife more than the first two, but she went predictable with “he’s got nice kids” pablum (which by the way he doesn’t — see, this is why people don’t trust Hillary). And what would Trump say about her? “She doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up. … she’s a fighter.” Good lord, that was actually gracious, and certainly the better answer; didn’t see that coming. At that point they called it a night and shook hands (even though they hadn’t at the start).

Verdict

“I’ve said some foolish things,” Trump said in that hostage apology video Friday, and he said some more foolish things in Sunday’s debate. The fact checkers have plenty to work with. Pollsters, on the other hand, may have less to work with, as debate #2 isn’t likely to alter the race in a meaningful way. Sure, Trump was un-unhinged enough to stop the arterial bleeding his campaign has been experiencing the last few days. But polls lag a few days, so before they capture the debate they will capture Access Hollywoodgate, which likely means it gets worse for Trump Tower before it gets better (or perhaps more accurately before it stops getting worse). Clinton wasn’t all that aggressive Sunday night, not in the manner of the first debate because she didn’t need to be. A tie goes to the runner, as the old saying goes, and she’s the one running.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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