The state of the race

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The trajectory of the campaign was not hugely affected by the debate. Trump's decline in the polls may flatten out in the days ahead. But the campaign was affected by the videotape. It is startling that his support did not decline more after a leaked video of Trump speaking about how he used his power to aid his sexual exploits captured the nation's attention like nothing before it. I am not sure if I would use the word "assault" to describe the behavior he was describing, for that is a technical and legal term, but it sure sounds like it. The whole tone of the videotape was one of intense misogyny. It was horrifying to listen to, and enough people were horrified so that the polls have begun to tilt decisively towards Clinton.

I have three things to say about the tape. First, all these Republicans coming forward and expressing how shocked they are and distancing themselves from Trump should be made to answer the question: And why are you surprised? Did you think the man who called Mexicans rapists and made fun of a disabled reporter and disparaged the heroism of John McCain would be delicate about women? And why does this disqualify him from office while the other comments did not, especially the first about immigrants because that comment was linked to a public policy that would have been unjust?

Second, many Democrats, at least the men, are equally disingenuous when they express shock at Trump's comments. Trump was not wrong when he said in the debate that more locker rooms than not witness such crude misogynistic commentaries every day. I have heard it and it always disgusts me. (And I will bet that such commentaries are always worse when conducted by men of power.) But he also just waved a red flag at every national political reporter in the country who now need to find out if this was all just talk.

Third, I do not know who did opposition research for Jeb Bush, but he or she should be made to mow the lawn or shine shoes at Mar-a-Lago for a month for failing to unearth this video back in January.

At the debate, Trump tried to counter his own situation by bringing in four women who have accused Bill Clinton of acting horribly towards them, even of committing rape. It is worth noting that he showed not only contempt for Hillary and for her decision to stay in her marriage, but just so, evidenced a certain contempt for marriage itself, no? How do evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr. justify that? But when you hear Trump bragging about hitting on a woman who is married, is anyone surprised that he has so little respect for marriage, at least when it is compared to his own salacious desires?

I do not want us to become anymore prudish than we already are. If you were fine with Trump insulting Mexicans but upset with the way he talked about grabbing women, your moral compass is not a Christian moral compass. And in the realm of politics, the insults to the Mexicans might be worse because they were tied to a policy he intended to implement if elected. His personal behavior to women is atrocious, but he was not advocating the repeal of sexual harassment laws. I am more willing to forgive private wrongs, especially in this weird world of human sexuality. FDR was a great president even though he was not such a great husband. 

One other fact stuck out from the debate that warrants mention. Trump said he wanted to put Hillary in jail if he is elected. Think about that. Trump really is clueless about what an achievement America's civilian democracy is. Putting one's political opponents in jail is happily not something we have ever witnessed in this country. It was not just that his suggestion was revolting, it was that he was so casual about it, as if he just had the idea and thought he might as well throw it out. Or, worse, he had heard the idea from someone, did not think to vet it, and threw it into the mix. It is appalling.

The rest of the Republican Party is in an impossible position. Over the weekend after the video story broke, Trump's support in the polls did not decline much. Will a congressional candidate who distances herself from Trump find that Trump backers will now desert her? Will a senatorial candidate who sticks with Trump find that he is tarred among moderate, unaffiliated women by his association, and they will now prevent him from winning? I have two words to describe this political difficulty facing the Republicans: Just deserts.

I hope, however, that Democrats will do some soul-searching as well. The Trump phenomenon is the result of years in which both parties have failed to meet the needs of far too many Americans. Democrats have been all too willing to take part in the willful disregard for growing income inequality the past 40 or so years. Democrats have been all too willing to do the bidding of their corporate donors. Democrats have promised to stand by organized labor, and then sign off on trade deals that are filled from start to finish with special kinds of corporate protections, giving the lie to the idea of free trade itself. And, they have unnecessarily stuck their finger in the eyes of many more conservative working class voters. As I have noted many times, Hillary Clinton almost always mentions the need to make college more affordable in her speeches and debate performances but rarely mentions what we as a society can do to help those who are not going to college.

The sad fact is that the next month is likely to stay as ugly as Sunday night's debate. We will not really witness much focus on the issues. Clinton will romp over Trump's mistakes, but she has not set before the nation three or four items she aims to achieve in her first 100 days, so she will be unable to claim a mandate when she wins. The core dynamic in the race, articulated precisely by Steve Schmidt the night of the second debate, namely, that whoever is in the spotlight is the person going down in the polls bodes ill for governance. I hope that in the days ahead, the Clinton campaign will focus less on Trump's mistakes and more on her own agenda, but I am not holding my breath. Trump's only path to victory is to make so many people so disgusted with the whole campaign that they stay home, and his steady 40 percent of the likely vote becomes a majority as the total number of likely voters shrinks.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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