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US 2016, Second debate: A town hall mud wrestling match...



US 2016, Second debate: A town hall mud wrestling match in Missouri

J. BROOKS SPECTOR once again dragged himself out of bed at 02:30 in the morning to watch the second presidential debate. It was not a glowing advertisement for the American democratic project and the Founding Fathers would not have been tremendously amused.

The second debate of this year’s American presidential campaign took place at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri on Sunday night. As a result of the fallout from the release of a recording of Donald Trump uttering astoundingly lewd comments, dozens of Republican office holders across the country have denounced – or even renounced – Trump’s candidacy. Accordingly, this debate took on something of a real do-or-die texture for Donald Trump to staunch the bleeding politically.

Setting an extraordinary pre-debate tone, Donald Trump hosted a news “conference” that showcased a trio of women who have previously accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual assaults – and these same women were seated in the debate hall itself. Possibly this served to unsettle the Democratic candidate, if she happened to glance in their direction. Maybe.

The moderators in St Louis were Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN and two dozen questioners – undecided voters from the St Louis area – were seated right on-stage in a town hall meeting style format.

Right from the beginning, picking up on the current public temperament, questioners asked if the two candidates were providing appropriate role models for the country. To answer, Clinton went with being “stronger together”. Trump offered a quick nod of agreement and then launched into a biting critique of President Barack Obama’s tenure and a promise of law and order, justice, fixing the inner cities, and, inevitably, “making America great again”.

Anderson Cooper followed with the lewd tape question, In response, Trump went right to ISIS’ barbaric behaviour as opposed to what he termed his ‘locker room talk”. Cooper refused to let Trump off the hook until Trump insisted he had never done anything of the kind (presumably carrying out the locker room talk as opposed to ISIS-style barbarities). Clinton then went right for the throat, decrying Trump’s very fitness to serve, and reminding viewers of Trump’s long litany of denigration of that very long queue of his favourite punching bag targets.

Inevitably, too, Trump launched into former president Bill Clinton for his transgressions and for the candidate for defending an accused rapist (as his attorney). Clinton pointed to Trump’s own attacks of the Khan family (the parents of the Muslim American army captain killed in Iraq in 2004), the federal judge with Mexican ancestry, and his relentless “birther” attacks. Oh boy, this is increasingly nasty.

What! Did I just hear Trump call her the devil? Yup. And then there is this: “And if I win, I am going to get a special prosecutor to look into your lies (of these deleted emails) – to put her in jail. What? Trump is calling for his opponent to go to the big house. Unprecedented as an attack line in a US political contest. This is something one sees in a banana republic.

In response to all of this, Clinton then tells the national audience to fact-check Trumpean statements on her website. We have descended into a wretched he-said-she-said over those damned deleted e-mails. The spluttering and the “one on three” charge (assigning the moderators to Team Clinton) erupts from the Donald’s mouth.

A questioner finally gets a word in to ask about healthcare. He asks how to rein in costs and Clinton replies there is a need to work on those rising costs, even as benefits have been extended to 20-million more people and now include protections for coverage of pre-existing conditions. Trump argues that Obamacare is a disaster, just like Canada’s healthcare. Prime Minister Trudeau may not be smiling at this point.

The Bill Clinton quote about Obamacare as “the craziest system” is raised and candidate Clinton says repealing the system simply returns things to a situation of less than comprehensive private insurance coverage. The Donald then goes off onto a confusing riff about his great plans that will fix all the frauds perpetuated under the rubric of Obamacare.

Re Islamophobia, Trump says Muslims must report problems when they see them – and that by contrast, he notes, candidate Clinton won’t even say the words “radical Islamic terror”. Clinton retorts that everyone has a place in her America, and it is both shortsighted and dangerous to engage in demagogic rhetoric in dangerous circumstances. And of course there was the formulation, “I intend to defeat ISIS, but we are not a war with Islam.”

Asked if his earlier proposed ban on Muslim entry into America is still his policy, Trump now wants to call it extreme vetting, while his opponent wants to let in hundreds of thousands of potentially dangerous Syrian refugees. Clinton responds that under her administration, any vetting prior to entry will be as tough as it needs to be. Moreover, propaganda on terrorist websites is now using Trump’s own words as a tool for their recruitment. Trump then went on to argue that Clinton wants amnesty for everyone, and that, inevitably, she has terrible judgement, so there!

And then it is on to a Wikileaks question and the reported quote that Clinton believes in holding both a public and not so public position that may be in contradiction to one another. Clinton argued that this was way, way out of context as that line was part of a discussion about Abraham Lincoln’s multiple strategic approaches in pushing for the passage of the 13th Amendment to end slavery. And Clinton then went on to cite Russian involvement in hacking various e-mail servers as part of an effort to disrupt this election. Trump replied that it is possible there has been no hacking, but, regardless, all of these comments are about trying to destroy him.

Finally taxes come up. Trump says, yes, he pays hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and if he wins this election he will get rid of that carried interest provision (the one where he claimed nearly a billion dollars in losses) but she would not push for it because her friends use it and her friends benefit from this and then give her millions of contributions in return. In a pivot, Trump said, “we are bringing taxes down, big league. She is raising your taxes. There is no growth in this country”, and then it was “China, China” again. She retorts that his tax cuts will raise taxes on the middle class and that as a senator she voted to reduce tax loopholes. “We need to reduce the fact that since the recession, the benefits have flowed to the top.” And along the way, The Donald actually admitted to Anderson Cooper, sotto voce, that no, he did not pay personal federal income taxes during that 18-year period.


Then we circle back to Clinton’s alleged “terrible, bad judgment” in allowing ISIS to flourish as this somehow morphed into Trump’s angry interruptions that she should have gotten rid of that carried loss provision when she was a senator. She finally notes that she was just one senator out of a hundred at a time when there was a Republican president.

Re the Syrian crisis, a questioner asks about this “new holocaust” and Clinton replies that this is a problem exacerbated by Russian engagement and, yes, she supports a war crimes investigation over Syrian actions. Trump argues in reply that America is old, tired and exhausted in its nuclear stockpile, unlike Russia. And then it is off to the charge that everything done by the US is terrible now, even as Assad is killing ISIS. And, astoundingly, she made Iran strong and “I disagree with my running mate” on Syria. Heads swivel as if to say, “Say what?”

And then Trump accused the government of its stupidity in announcing an imminent attack on Mosul. That sets off a wrangle between Trump and Martha Raddatz over his explanations of Syria strategy. On the split screen television view, the Donald smirked and grimaced for his followers, even if this probably did little to endear him to anyone in the middle. And he bickered repeatedly over the time allocations between the two contenders, accusing the moderators of serious partisanship.

This has become bizarre. Truly. If this is democracy in action, perhaps Plato’s arguments on behalf of a philosopher king are something worth considering.

As the night moves on, the candidates are asked if they could be president for all people? To this, Trump answered, “of course” and then he promptly pivoted to criticism of the North America Free Trade Association signed by the candidate’s husband decades ago as the worst trade deal ever. We are deep into some free-wheeling stream-of-consciousness rants. Clinton then had her chance and pointed to her long career as an advocate on behalf of making sure every American has a place in her America. She cited an adopted Ethiopian 10-year-old child who had asked his adoptive mother if he would be repatriated if Trump is elected. She calls this fear the Trump Effect. No answer to that.

Clinton apologised again for calling half of Trump’s supporters “deplorable”, but then pointed to Trump’s string of insults and invective. Trump, in return, insisted America is a divided nation because she has tremendous hatred in her heart. Huh?

Ah, in terms of temperament, Trump finally moved on to the Benghazi disaster. Clinton, Trump said, had failed to respond to 600 calls for help from US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens for help during the seige – 600? Really? Clinton then got in a lick on how difficult Barack Obama’s task was when he came into office during the financial crisis.

On Supreme Court appointments, Clinton answered a question by saying she wants a court that will overturn the Citizens United decision that allowed vast amounts if money to flow into political campaigns and she wanted it uphold Roe v Wade, for example. And, sadly, the Senate has failed in its duty to even schedule confirmation hearings for President Obama’s nominee to fill the current vacancy. Trump then touted his list of possible nominees and his support for the Second Amendment and his stance against gun control. He pivots on to charge her with making hundreds of millions of dollars while in office and that she should invest in her own campaign. Does no one on the stage notice this?

We then moved on to energy policy as Trump argued that foreign investors were sneaking into the country to buy up energy plans, even as Clinton wanted to kill off the coal industry, but then he argued inexplicably that reviving the coal industry would help pay off the national debt. Clinton noted that Trump is, himself, buying dumped Chinese steel (sold below the cost of production) to construct his buildings. Regardless, she added, the country is now energy independent and her comprehensive energy policy does take into consideration global climate change and that “we need to look at this comprehensively” rather than simply save the jobs of coal miners, regardless.

The last question asked if either candidate could find anything in the other’s life to respect. Clinton pointed to Trump’s children and their behaviour as something to admire even if she did not respect very much that he has said during his campaign. Trump thanked her for her remarks about his children and grudgingly offered that he respected her doggedness as a fighter for the things she believes in.

Thank God this train smash of a conversation finally ended. This viewer couldn’t drink any more coffee.

And so, who won? Instant polling pointed to Clinton having bettered her opponent by a significant degree, although despite a dreadful week for Trump, she did not grind him into molecular dust. Trump was left standing. Wounded, but still alive. Buried in all of this mud slinging was Trump’s astonishing disagreement with his own running mate, Mike Pence, over Russia and Syria, and his admission that his federal income tax bill was, in fact, virtually zero for nearly two decades. What Trump did not do was provide his new detractors within the GOP with any reason to return to his side. If this stays true, the electoral map increasingly gets painted blue. That, in turn, should make Republican office holders even more worried than they were. DM

Photo: Democratic US presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their presidential town hall debate with Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, US, October 9, 2016.


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