The ugliest debate ever

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

by Michael Sean Winters

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It took all of 10 seconds for last night's second presidential debate to get ugly. Actually, the ugliness began even before the debate, when the Trump campaign announced that it was bringing four women who had accused Bill Clinton of various sexual crimes to the debate and putting them in the front row.

The doubling down on the Clintons' ethics by Donald Trump strikes me as foolhardy. It might be a smart strategy if he were running against Bill Clinton, but he is running against Hillary. And it keeps the discussion on his own reprehensible sexual behavior in the mix. Last night, he dismissed the video in which he spoke of treating women as playthings not people as mere "locker room talk" and then spent a minute talking about the barbarism of ISIS, and finished his opening two minutes by saying, "We need to get on to more important things." I am betting that the millions of moderate and Republican suburban women whose votes Trump needs believe that sexually degrading women, misogyny and sexual assault are plenty important.

Trump did say he was embarrassed by the video and he apologized again. But the coarseness of the words on the video needed a more fulsome sense of contrition if he was to repair the damage the video did to the evangelical base of the party. I am sure many readers join me in the hope that Robert Jones and his team at the Public Religion Research Institute will have some new numbers soon, and I am betting we will see some softening of Trump's support among white evangelicals. Maybe not.

The decision by the Trump campaign to keep the focus on Bill's sexual misdeeds or crimes is based on the hope that the kind of debate we saw last night will turn off almost everyone so that his current 40 to 42 percent of the electorate, many of them determined to back him to the end, could be first past the pole. Secondarily, Clinton-bashing is the easiest way to unite the Republican Party. I don't think either strategic objective is enough because the conversation also highlights Trump's weaknesses and keeps it away from Hillary's greatest vulnerability: She is trying to hold onto the White House for one party for a third consecutive term, something that has only been done once since World War II.

Trump scored last night when he repeatedly reminded people that Hillary Clinton had been in Washington for 30 years and things had not gotten much better. This taps into the widespread sense that both parties have failed to put the national interest ahead of their partisan interest, and that there is a kind of corruption at the core of modern politics, beholden as it is to large donors. She can cite her accomplishments, and some of them are significant, but that too reminds an electorate looking for change that whatever else she is, Clinton is not the candidate of change in this election. If the voters are mad as hell, and a lot of them are, Trump is the one who channels that anger far more effectively.

One of the key questions going into the debate was whether or not we would learn something about the likelihood of Trump dropping out, and we did: He isn't going anywhere. In a discussion of Clinton's emails he expressed his disappointment with Congress, including the Republicans, for not prosecuting her. Later, in response to a question about his running mate's comments on Syria and Putin, Trump threw Gov. Pence under the bus. We knew he hated the establishment Republicans who have been abandoning him over the weekend, and we could figure he saw Pence as their camel with his nose under the Trump tent, but to watch him throw his running mate under the bus like that was still stunning.

One of my favorite exchanges involved the Affordable Care Act. Trump accused Clinton of supporting a single-payer system. My notes say "if only that were the case!" Both played to type. Clinton said we needed to improve the ACA, fixing the things that were wrong, while Trump said he would scrap the whole thing, remove the ban on interstate insurance sales, and that the resulting explosion of competition would fix everything. Not clear how increased competition would force the insurance companies to cover those with prior conditions, and the moderators did not press him on the point. I also liked the fact that she was the one who mentioned the importance of religious liberty. Take that, Becket Fund!

Clinton's debate prep team gets low marks for devising an answer to the Wikileaks story that invoked Abraham Lincoln. It may be true that when Clinton spoke of having one story for public consumption and a different line for private use, she was answering a question about Lincoln. Our current political climate and its wacky lack of historical sense do not permit her to admit what is the truth: Of course there are times when political leaders can and should lie to the public. But, the answer led with her jaw, something she rarely does, and Trump's response, "Oh, now you're blaming the emails on Abe Lincoln," was his strongest moment all night.

On foreign policy, Clinton is poised and sometimes obscure, incapable of defending some truly bad judgments in the past, but Trump is incoherent and babbling. He keeps referring to things in no particular order, without any set up. One moment he is mentioning Sid Blumenthal, as if everyone knows who he is. Another moment Trump is combining every conspiracy theory he can think of into one master narrative. Look at this paragraph and imagine what your average voter who reads a not very good newspaper everyday might make of it:

But if you look at Russia, just take a look at Russia, and look at what they did this week, where I agree, she wasn't there, but possibly she's consulted. We sign a peace treaty. Everyone's all excited. Well, what Russia did with Assad and, by the way, with Iran, who you made very powerful with the dumbest deal perhaps I've ever seen in the history of deal-making, the Iran deal, with the $150 billion, with the $1.7 billion in cash, which is enough to fill up this room.

James Joyce foreign policy: Everything but the moo cow.

The constant interruptions by Trump were bad, but his constant whining about how unfair the moderators were was worse. It shows a personality trait that seems more and more evident: Trump has been sheltered by his wealth since he was a baby and so, in many regards, he is still a big baby. He alternates between bullying and whining. More on the implications of that personality disorder tomorrow.

Did the debate change anything? Trump's performance was good enough to stop the bleeding at his campaign. And it changed the topic from the previous days' story of Republican leaders abandoning ship. GOP candidates remain in their dire conundrum that I predicted a long time ago: They can distance themselves from Trump and risk alienating key voters in the GOP base who love him, or they can stick with him and lose the unaffiliated and more moderate voters whose votes they also need. It is an impossible situation, but it was an entirely foreseeable one. The debate did not change that and nothing else will either. The last month, I fear, will be as ugly as last night was. This is the Breitbart election through and through. 

[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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