First Two Presidential Debates Bring Chills and Thrills. Vice Presidential Debate Brings Yawns.

Max Shatan ‘18

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The first 2016 Presidential Debate. Photo credit: CBS News. 

On September 26th, 2016, an estimated audience of 84 million Americans tuned in to watch the First Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. While no one was expecting the event to be a rational and detail-oriented discussion of policy, nobody foresaw the truly bizarre affair that was to come. Even the events leading up to the debates were unusual, with Clinton’s campaign inviting billionaire and outspoken Trump critic Mark Cuban to sit in the front row of the audience, which prompted Trump to invite Gennifer Flowers, with whom Bill Clinton admitted to having extramarital sexual relations. Although Flowers accepted the invitation over Twitter, her appearance never materialized. During this back and forth between the two campaigns, immense pressure was put on moderator Lester Holt, who was accused of liberal bias by Trump himself (despite being a registered Republican). In turn, the Clinton campaign suggested that Trump was trying to influence Holt and warned the moderator against trying to compensate for favoritism that they believed was nonexistent.

When the debate actually began, however, Holt simply faded into the background, thus making his style of moderation disinterested, but ultimately uninteresting, lacking pointed questions to focus the candidates. Trump came out strong as he attacked Clinton on trade, arguably his strongest area and Clinton’s weakest. He came off as authoritative (albeit heavily sedated) and even (gasp) knowledgeable as he pressed Clinton on her vacillating stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as her husband’s support of NAFTA, two controversial free-trade deals. Ultimately, Clinton was unable to parry Trump’s accusations successfully, although she seemed ultimately unfazed.

Now, if the debate had ended here, it would’ve been ruled a draw, perhaps even a Trump victory. However, Trump’s notoriously short attention span and penchant for personal attacks got the best of him as things started to spiral out of control. The interruptions started out slow, but quickly became more numerous and inflammatory as the night went on. Trump lost focus, even neglecting to push Clinton on her deleted emails, which he has made into a central issue of his campaign. Clinton apologized for her part in the mishandling of confidential information, which came off as appropriately contrite, in stark contrast to Trump’s repeated refusal to express regret when discussing his own scandals. Trump’s attacks quickly became nonsensical, even delusional, as he accused Clinton of “fighting ISIS her entire adult life,” (ISIS was founded in 2014, Mrs. Clinton is 68), and asserting that she was the originator of the “Birther” conspiracy theory, of which Trump was the main proponent. Clinton may be criticized heavily for being a “career politician,” but in the end, it was her unflappability and firm grasp of policy that allowed her to stay calm and focused throughout the debate. Clinton approached Trump’s attacks with a sense of authority, compassion, and an unusually healthy sense of humor (the shimmy!) which allowed her to turn in a masterclass performance. With most post-debate polls handing a victory to Clinton, the stage was set for the second debate.

In between the two presidential debates, Vice-Presidential nominees Tim Kaine and Mike Pence squared off in the Vice-Presidential Debate on October 4th. It was incredibly uneventful. Hailed as the “Thrilla in Vanilla,” the two straight, white, middle-aged men brought some semblance of policy discussion into the election, but neither party proved especially convincing. Kaine ignored Pence’s controversial support of gay to straight “conversion therapy” in favor of levelling attacks against Trump. In response, Pence invented a magical man, coincidentally also called “Donald Trump,” to be his running mate. This “Donald Trump” was a strong and compassionate conservative, who has never said anything controversial or out of line with party dogma. And while this man sounded quite reasonable, Kaine failed to point out convincingly that he doesn’t actually exist, which probably cost him the debate. Pence’s demeanor was calm and assured, whereas Kaine looked less like Clinton’s attack dog and more like Clinton’s attack Chihuahua. Pence’s acclaimed performance may have pleased “Donald Trump,” but Donald Trump was reportedly very upset that he was upstaged by a homophobic Q-Tip.

Fortunately for Tim Kaine, the VP debate had very little time to sink into the news cycle. On October 7th, two days before the second presidential debate, the Washington Post leaked a 2005 tape of Donald Trump bragging about committing serial sexual assault. The Trump campaign went into meltdown, with prominent Republicans withdrawing their endorsements, and Mike Pence himself declining to defend the comments. Some, such as Senator Mike Lee of Utah, called on Trump to step down. Across cable news, Trump’s army of surrogates said he needed to be humble and issue an apology immediately. Trump eventually released a taped statement in which he “apologized,” but then pivoted to attack Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct in a desperate and ill-advised attempt to change the subject. This move was largely seen as insincere, and with Trump beginning to slide in the polls, he couldn’t afford any more bad press. However, flying in the face of his advisors, common sense, and human decency, Trump doubled down. Just hours before the debate, Trump held a press conference featuring two women accusing Bill Clinton of sexual assault, one accusing the former president of rape, and a fourth whose rapist was represented in court by Hillary Clinton as a public defender. Meanwhile the Clinton camp was dealing with their own problems, namely a series of hacked emails leaked throughout the course of the week by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. The emails show joking exchanges between top campaign officials, some of which veered off into criticisms of Hispanics and Catholics. Also hacked were transcripts of Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street investment banks, which showed her taking a more genial attitude towards the financial sector than she does on the campaign trail.

This was the backdrop as the candidates met on October 9th for the Second Presidential Debate, moderated by Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz. The debate was in a town hall format, which meant that the candidates were free to move about the stage and would be taking questions from ordinary people. From the outset, the moderators took on a much more assertive tone than Holt, trying to keep the candidates on topic and on schedule. This angered Trump, who accused Raddatz and Cooper of taking Clinton’s side. Trump’s start in this debate was not as strong as his previous one, as he floundered when Cooper asked a series of pointed questions regarding his sexually aggressive comments. Trump denied committing the sexual assault he bragged about on tape and awkwardly pivoted to point out that ISIS beheads people, a bizarre non-sequitur. However, if Trump had not committed the acts that he described to Billy Bush (and the torrent of accusers coming out this week show he probably did), this means that his idea of fun “locker room” banter is to invent instances of sexual assault then boast about them, which is not only nonsensical, but also reprehensible and disturbing. Clinton did not go as forcefully after Trump as she could have on this issue, but she really didn’t have to, as Trump’s lackluster defense did the work for her.

Much like the first debate, Trump interrupted and insulted Clinton throughout, accusing her of having “tremendous hate in her heart” and threatening to throw her in jail if he were to be elected president. This statement not only displays Trump’s authoritarian proclivities, but also his fundamental misunderstanding of the Executive Branch’s powers. Clinton’s performance was not as strong as her swaggering first debate, but she managed to hold her own, providing real solutions in pragmatic, relatable terms. Trump shot himself in the foot when essentially admitting to not paying any income tax for the last 18 years on national television, suggesting that it was really Clinton’s fault for not closing the tax loophole that allowed him to do so. He even went so far as to call her “the devil,” a conspiracy theory floated by talk show host Alex Jones, who alleges that Clinton is “dark” and “possessed.”

Despite all the inflammatory rhetoric, what the second debate will most likely be remembered for is the body language displayed by both candidates. While Clinton spoke, Trump wandered around the stage like a toddler waiting to leave a party, often leaning on his chair or lurking in the background. During one of Clinton’s responses, Trump stood only a few feet behind her, which prompted many pundits after the debate to compare him to a stalker. A few fleeting moments of bliss came in the form of Ken Bone’s red quarter-zip cable knit Izod sweater, but it was not enough to sweeten an unusually acrimonious debate. (Update 10/16: Turns out Ken Bone’s a jerk. Oops.) In the end, Trump’s performance was generally more forceful and consistent then his first, and Clinton was not as sharp or persuasive as she usually is. However, her focus and poise was enough to pull her ahead of her opponent. Only time will tell if these debates truly changed any minds, but they definitely provided some nail-biting political theatre, and set the stage for the third debate on October 19th, and the election on November 8th.

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