The Brawl in the Townhall: Second Presidential Debate Recap

The candidates mid-rap battle.

The run-up to the second debate felt unprecedented — which given the attention paid to the first one was saying something. It’s like the “grab them by the pussy” tape was leaked just to build up hype for the rematch.

Maybe the WWE angle is overdone, but it keeps feeling appropriate. There were barricades in front of the seats, Juanita Broadrick and other minor characters in the stands, and even Vince MacMahon playing a tangential role after being the only donor to the Trump foundation. I was hoping Trump would come out like the Undertaker, stand on the side of the stage and insult the crowd.

Much is made of the “expectations game.” At this debate in particular, there was the palpable expectation that this could be a moment when the Trump campaign, already on the ropes, could have the bottom fall out from under it — there were even articles to that effect.

For the first few exchanges, it looked like this might happen. The pussy-grabbing question came up right away, and Clinton had a poised, moving, and coherent response. Trump doubled down on describing it as locker room talk and rambled on about ISIS and the economy, trying to act like he wanted to focus on the “real issues” — when he’d been the one tweeting about a former Miss Universe contestant for a week beforehand. This was mentioned, and he denied saying she had a “sex tape” when he did. Just a reminder that this is a contest for the leader of the free world.

However, after the first few questions Trump rebounded. When it came to the question of Hillary’s emails, Trump repeatedly pressed the attack and pulled out all the stops, redirecting audience questions into a best-of compilation of arguments you already know from facebook. Hillary deleted 33,000 emails. Hillary should have gone to jail for her email server. Bill was a serial abuser of women. Hillary was friends with Sydney Blumenthal, who is a bad guy. It was sort of like hearing a Hillary smear doc on audiobook.

Hillary responded to the more outrageous claims by saying she was “taking the high road” and that “if she fact-checked everything she’d never talk about anything else,” inviting people to see fact checking at HillaryClinton.com. For a candidate who is widely regarded as untrustworthy, acting like this is a legitimate option is more laughable than anything I could type. While taking the high road sounds great in theory, John Kerry’s experience getting swift-boated shows that just because you think an attack kooky doesn’t mean voters do. She should forcefully clarify that the 33,000 emails were recovered and read by the FBI, who still declined to indict her, and that contrary to his claims her non-indictment was in line with how others were treated. However, she continues to go the “apologize and move on” route, which I think keeps this issue alive in the minds of a lot of voters.

The email exchange also played into Trump’s hands another way. After she didn’t particularly answer the question, Trump asked the moderators why they didn’t make her answer it. The moderators repeatedly pressed Trump on his answers in a way that I don’t think was helpful — it made it look like they were prosecuting him, and he outright accused them of letting her go over her time and not him. Part of the problem was that Hillary did a better job of staying on topic, so she didn’t need to be reminded to answer the actual question, but part did seem antagonistic towards Trump. In the end, he did get to speak longer than her, and he still managed to create the impression he was shortchanged — a double win for him.

It’s very hard to keep the candidates on even footing, but what they should be doing is having the clocks onscreen for the audience, so they can see when the candidates are going over. They should also take cues from the Academy Awards and cut mics or play music if they go far over their time. Otherwise it involves the subjective judgement of the moderators in a way that is always going to lead to claims of bias, legitimately or not. Plus, while artists have been asking Trump not to play their music, they’d line up to be used to play him to a close. For her part, Clinton being hushed by Toby Keith just feels fitting.

After the first change in fortunes, the rest of the debate was fairly even. Hillary generally had well-rehearsed responses. Trump had energy and stage presence that made the debate seem to revolve around him. He also had an everyday, man-on-the-street wisdom that was appealing. I’m paraphrasing (because the typed version of Trump’s speaking style is always painful), but saying “the only problem with arming the rebels is that we have no idea who they are and every time we arm rebels they end up using the arms against us” is an effective, common-sense criticism that divides Washington thinkers from everyday Americans. Trump did pack some whoppers into his vision of an apocalyptic world, but the truth is people rarely fact check (or trust fact checkers) and it was a convincing narrative of a world where his views made sense. The only problem is if it’s really the one that exists, but if enough people believe it does, that is what matters.

While Trump seemed to be the more compelling presence, however, he did appear to make some mistakes.

The biggest was that he said that if he were elected, he would tell his attorney general to prosecute Hillary Clinton. This doesn’t do any favors to the appearance of him being a dictator. Given that he also has a penchant for buying expensive portraits of himself, does anyone doubt that he’d hang massive ones off buildings if he was elected? People may have erected naked sculptures of him, but it’s only a matter of time before he puts his own in town squares.

The second biggest flub was saying he disagreed with Mike Pence and “hadn’t spoken to him” when he was confronted with the difference between Pence’s anger towards Russia and his own indifference. It doesn’t speak to your ability to handle allies when you don’t have an alliance with your own Vice President.

A smaller SNAFU was saying that Hillary was “four more years of Obama,” which she’d be happy to be seen as — since he has record approval ratings, perhaps aided by the fact that the GOP attack machine has been aimed at her instead of him for months

Hillary also had a good, passionate argument for why the Supreme Court was so important — and pointed out that Trump’s theoretical nominees for the court included people committed to overturning Roe v. Wade and Citizen’s United. Trump’s response was to put Scalia on a pedestal, which probably won’t help him with the female voters said to be crucial. Between abortion rights and grabbing women by the pussy, vaginas are really front and center in this campaign and voting with them seems increasingly reasonable.

It was an exceptionally vicious debate, with Hillary accusing Trump of racism and unfit character and Trump literally implying she was the devil (a nod to evangelicals?). Surprisingly, it ended on a high note when one of the audience members asked the candidates to name one thing they admired about the other. Hillary named Trump’s kids, and that it was to his credit that he raised them (which is about 1/3 right, since Ivanka is cool and the boys look like they are the second to last evil bosses in a Bruce Willis movie). Trump said Hillary was a fighter, which was surprising given that his campaign had been making it seem like she was about to die of influenza for weeks. He’s been selling himself as the candidate of strength, so calling her that seems to be giving away his own thunder. However, given that he was loudly sniffling into the microphone the entire debate, maybe it was to show that a cold isn’t actually disqualifying for the presidency.

Overall, Trump managed a solid performance. Snap polls showed it slightly towards Clinton though mostly a wash, but there will be many who felt he won. However, as some pundits pointed out, he also opened up new lines of attack on himself — and in the clips that get played on the news, the lines of attack may prove more hurtful to his candidacy than the full debate. The last exchange shows that by any measure, Americans are tired of this vitriolic campaign, and extending it further with a show trial for Hillary is both worrisome and unwanted. However, it does put front and center that she keeps weaseling (dare I say pussyfooting) around her responses to email questions. If renewing doubts about Hillary and firing up Trump supporters hurts her turnout while increasing his, it could help his odds even without a difference in the polling numbers.