My quick reactions after the second Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate from Washington University in St. Louis:
• I learned almost nothing new. Why do I even kid myself that I might? I pay way too much attention to the candidates’ actual records and positions and biographies, which I consider to be the most important things. A debate turns out to be a terrible place to learn any of that, especially if you’ve already been paying way too much attention.
• The one thing that was new, if you take it seriously, was horrifying: Trump pledged to sic a special prosecutor on Hillary Clinton and try to put her in jail. No presidential candidate has ever come close to making a threat like that to his opponent before. At least not in this country. There are countries where the winners throw the loser in prison or have them shot, but we do not consider those to be democracies.
• The evening started with a discussion of Trump’s despicable caught-on-tape bragging about being such a big star that he’s allowed to grab women “by the pussy.” I just have to say that I don’t understand how anyone was shocked or surprised by this, at this point in this campaign. But since it has taken over the last couple of days of our great exercise in democracy, someone must have thought that everyone was surprised.
• Trump got to take his retaliatory shots at Bill Clinton’s philandering, and Hillary Clinton’s alleged complicity in covering it up. I went into the evening expecting this garbage to take over the debate, and possibly the remainder of the campaign. I was relieved that it blew over in the first few minutes. Perhaps the last two days of talk about changing the Republican ticket will also blow over. We are too close to Election Day for that and we have to ride this one out with the lineup we have.
• The crotch-grabbing story may come back. Trump dismissed it as “locker room talk” and made a rare expression of regret, even uttering the “a” word (“apologize”) twice. Anderson Cooper pressed him to answer the question of whether there was any more than “talk,” in other words, whether he had also acted on this particular prerogative of stardom. Trump tried to dodge, but ultimately said no, there was no actual groping, just locker room talk. It strikes me as altogether likely that the Dems will find some women who will contradict that claim, and we’ll be back to talking genitalia. Perhaps the truth will set us free, or perhaps it will impel us into an all-smut last month of the campaign.
Clinton didn’t claim to have evidence of actual proven unwelcome Trumpian groping (or worse than groping). She used it as evidence of Trump’s proven willingness to disrespect not only women but Gold Star families and whole religions, and federal judges of Mexican descent and a disabled reporter.
• I don’t know if he always does this, but Trump last night was seriously in love with calling things a “disaster.” He listed 13 disasters including: “The inner cities of our country, which are a disaster,” and a second specific reference to the schools there as “a disaster”; the NAFTA trade deal signed by Bill Clinton; the current situation in Libya and the situation in Aleppo (both of which are Clinton’s fault, he said); the Iraq War (yes, he repeated the lie that he opposed it in advance, but told the truth that Clinton voted to authorize it); Clinton’s entire record as a Senator; Clinton’s entire record on foreign policy; Obamacare; single-payer health care as it works in Canada; and Clinton’s proposed tax plan. (Trump also identified four things, also mostly Clinton’s fault, that were or are or would be a “disgrace,” but I won’t enumerate them.)
In the instant post-analysis, I heard Tucker Carlson say that Clinton argues that the situation in America could “use some improvement,” whereas Trump looks at the country and sees “a disaster.” There’s a lot to this, and to the wall that the separates the cautiously optimistic from those who see a society in free-fall.
• Clinton, as she has in the past, advocated that the United States create and enforce a no-fly zone and a “safe zone” over Syria, but she did not answer (and never has) whether she would be willing to have the United States shoot down a Russian plane that breached either of these zones, since Russian warplanes are active in Syria, and shooting down a Russian plane would be a very large deal.
• The Syria discussion also led to an awkward moment regarding the Trump-Pence team, which ended with one of Trump’s “disaster” references. It went like this, on the subject of what to do about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo:
Moderator Martha Raddatz: Mr. Trump, let me repeat the question. If you were president, what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo? I want to remind you what your running mate said. He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and if Russia continues to be involved in air-strikes along with the Syrian government forces of Assad, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime.
Trump: Okay. He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.
Raddatz: You disagree with your running mate?
Trump: Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and Iran who she made strong and Kerry and Obama made into a very powerful nation and very rich nation, very, very quickly. Very, very quickly.
I believe we have to get ISIS. We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved. She had a chance to do something with Syria. They had a chance. That was the line.
Raddatz: What do you think will happen if Aleppo falls.
Trump: It is a disaster.
Pence may, and should be asked, whether he disagrees with his running mate.
Here’s a full transcript of the debate, via Fortune magazine.
Transcripts, of course, are full of nothing but the words actually spoken. James Fallows, in his Atlantic Magazine piece previewing the debates, wrote that, “the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.”
I seriously hate to think that the words don’t matter and the pictures do (also the grunts and sniffs; yes, Trump did the loud sniffing thing again when he was talking), and I don’t trust my own reactions on the visuals, but my best guess is that no one who is not already in love with Trump could possibly like the way he looked last night or the way he behaved.
He lurked around the stage, at times almost looking baboon-like in his posture, tried to bully Clinton by standing too close to her when it was her turn to talk, seldom smiled, rebuked the moderators for asking Clinton nicer questions than they were asking him (“It’s three on one,” he complained aloud at one point.) He interrupted Clinton far, far, far more often than she did him, and was also much less willing to wrap up his statements after the moderators told him his time was up. He complained that that they were favoring her by giving her more time, although the stopwatch at the end of the evening indicated that he had exercised his vocal chords a minute or two more than she.
The third and final presidential debate of the season is scheduled for Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The format will revert back to the single-moderator, with no questions from the audience.