There was a sense that we all knew what was coming on October 9th, that the coming storm was long overdue. In the moments before the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the silence in the debate hall set a foreboding tone before one of the lowest moments in modern U.S. political history.
It was a grim evening. Here are a few takeaways:
In a sentence
Donald Trump managed to steady the ship for his campaign after a dreadful weekend by relentlessly attacking the Clintons, but offered little to new voters, while Clinton remained composed, and scored a slight win in national polls.
Desperate and nasty, Trump lives
Trump was in desperation mode in St Louis.
Once the general election began the real estate tycoon had laid the expectation that he may employ highly aggressive attacks on Hillary Clinton, including those involving her husband, if his campaign demanded it.
After flailing wildly during the first debate, and then suffering the indignity of disclosures about his monumental business losses in 1995, and being nationally lambasted for a tape revealing sexually aggressive language, that time had come. ‘If I’m going down, I’m taking her with me’ logic.
In the hours before the debate Trump held a press conference with women who allege harassment and assault by Bill Clinton, cases that have bedevilled the controversial former Democratic president for decades but have not been brought to court. The Trump campaign – apparently through the designs of campaign CEO and former Breitbart head honcho, Steve Bannon – sought to place these women in Trump’s family seating, so they would be facing the Democratic nominee throughout the debate. The Trump camp believed this was fair game given the pressure they have been under after the leak of the Access Hollywood tapes, but it would have debased presidential politics to Jerry Springer-levels.
Trump laid into Bill Clinton and hurled hyperbolic insults at Hillary. He called her the devil, said she had hatred in her heart, and singularly blamed her for the federal government failing to pass legislation when she was a senator. The worst incident was perhaps when he interrupted Clinton to suggest that, were he in charge of the judicial system of the States, he would put her in jail. A particularly low point for U.S. politics: a major party candidate, acting like a wannabe dictator, threatening to imprison a political rival.
Trump’s all out warfare on the Clinton’s was enough to sate his hard-boiled core of the support, and steady his campaign. It did very little to reach out to new voters, and his policy answers staggered drunkenly into meandering non sequiturs. Yet for simply prosecuting the case against the Clintons, he’s still standing.
Clinton on the defensive, but narrowly “wins”
Reputable polls carried out during the days after the debate have shown Secretary Clinton to have won this debate. A CNN Poll showed Clinton winning 57% to 34%. YouGov had the debate at 47% Clinton, 42% Trump. Morning Consult-Politico had the verdict at 42% Clinton, 28% Trump. And NB-SurveyMonkey reported a 44%-34% win for Clinton.
However, the debate didn’t feel all that triumphant for Clinton.
Clinton was playing it safe during the second debate, but this shouldn’t be surprising after what has been one of the most conservative, risk-averse campaigns of recent memory. She was perhaps at her best disparaging the slurs of Trump regarding her husband, calling forth Michelle Obama’s much praised “when they go low, we go high” line.
However, the onslaught of attacks by Trump, coupled with his penchant for interrupting his opponent, meant that Clinton was frequently defending her record. On policy, she was far more coherent, and managed to engage with the audience members in a more natural manner than is often expected given her reputation as a relatively remote person.
Broadly speaking, the debate wasn’t necessarily a welcome event given recent developments. Trump was in free-fall in the national media over the Access Hollywood tape anyway, and Clinton is not the kind of politician who is temperamentally suited to delivering a ‘knock-out blow’. Instead, she has preferred to stay on message, and allow Trump to dig himself into controversy.
The bullying body language
Town hall debates usually provoke a number of experts to take to our screens to analyse every slight step of the presidential candidates. The body language debate, there are certain rules to how candidates are expected to behave during the town hall: don’t cower in one corner, don’t sigh or roll your eyes, and engage warmly with the audience.
Donald Trump was having none of it. After a weekend of pundits discussing his loutish, chauvinistic language from the Access Hollywood Tapes, Trump could have presented himself in a milder, more friendly disposition.
Instead he spent the debate glowering and pointing at Hillary Clinton. He wandered into the darker parts of the stage, gripping his chair when he became frustrated. The strangest behaviour was his tendency to hover over Hillary Clinton when she was giving an answer. Just days after his creepy approaches to women was being discussed in the national media he decided to stalk his opponent around the stage.
Clinton, meanwhile, struggled to remain composed and restrained at Trump’s interrupting. In one section, she indulged in patronisingly reminding Trump that a president enjoys veto powers, so any action she may have taken as a senator under a Republican White House would have gotten no where.
The body language analysts will be talking about this one for years.
Failure of the town hall format
One of the beneficial, if challenging, aspects of the town hall format for presidential candidates is the ability to interact directly with voters.
Very little of that here. Donald Trump didn’t seem to get the memo, and once the tone of the debate was set, Hillary Clinton struggled to maintain decent dialogue with the undecided voters posing the questions. No, instead this quickly degraded into a one-on-one mud slinging fight.
Triumph of the fact checkers
All hail Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz. Although Donald Trump whined about the moderators offering on the spot fact checks, and limiting his ability to interrupt Secretary Clinton, at this point it is plainly clear that Donald Trump requires a more engaged debate host.
The scale of Trump’s lying is staggering. On a simple issue, like supporting the Iraq War, the billionaire continues to debate facts that are recorded on tape. Throughout his answers, he resorts to gross exaggerations or outright lies: the “many people” who saw the guns and ammunition in the house of the San Bernadino terrorists’ house, the origin of the ‘birther’ movement, denying he called on voters to ‘check out’ Alicia Machado’s nonexistent ‘sex tape’.
That’s not to give Clinton a pass on her own fair share of falsehoods. Given the tenor of the debate, it is only fair that the debate moderators also push back on some of Clinton’s deflections on her private email server, and some of the revelations found in Wikileaks, even if the procurement of this information is incredibly troubling.
So bravo, Cooper and Raddatz; here’s hoping the moderators of the third debate push back at both candidates again.
The lines of the night…
“This was locker room talk.”
Trump, on the infamous Access Hollywood tape on which he brags about using his fame to assault women. Trump repeated the phrase numerous times, clearly trying to cram the idea into viewers minds.
“When they go low, you go high”
Clinton, invoking Michelle Obama after Trump attacked Bill Clinton’s record of misconduct.
“You know, under our Constitution, presidents have something called veto power.”
Clinton, giving Trump a civics lesson, after Trump blamed her for not enacting health care legislation when she was a Democratic senator under a Republican president.
“I will say this about Hillary, she doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up.”
Trump’s answer to ‘what he admires’ about Clinton, despite mocking her ‘stamina’ in the first debate.
“Donald Trump lives in an alternate reality. Donald always takes care of Donald, and people like Donald. Trump’s tax plan would give wealthy corporations the biggest tax cut they’ve ever had.”
Clinton, on Trump’s tax plan.
“Honest Abe never lied.”
Trump, on Clinton’s tortured answer about public vs private positions. Lincoln (the greatest U.S. president in my humble opinion) did lie, and recognised the need to send different messages out to different political stakeholders.
“She has tremendous hate in her heart. And this country cannot take another four years of Barack Obama”.
Trump, laying into Clinton, and ignoring President Obama’s high approval ratings.
“It’s called extreme vetting.”
Trump, dodging the question of whether he still supports a Muslim ban.