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Setting the Tone

By John-Walt Boatright  —

We knew what would happen. The signs were there. A staged press conference addressing a scandalous past. A leaked tape of a private conversation, which is becoming a staple of American politics. No beginning handshake.

The second presidential debate held true to predictions as a nasty, ugly affair. No doubt, it was entertaining television. But it is such an insufficient standard for a debate for the highest office in the land.

Trump improved, but not enough. Donald Trump noticeably stepped up his game. He was respectful of Clinton’s allotted time, which allowed one to more easily envision him in a Cabinet meeting without yelling over an advisor with whom he disagrees. He still struggled with articulating his answers. Particularly, we anxiously awaited how he would respond to the anticipated questions of his indefensible vulgarity in a leaked 2005 tape. Apologizing, but then excusing such lascivious behavior as “locker room talk” is not convincing, especially to a key group that he must make inroads with – women (amongst others). He gave decent answers on the failure of the current healthcare policy and the future of the Supreme Court, which he has exercised more transparency than Clinton by publicizing a list of potential appointments.

Hillary was average. Clinton’s aggression toward Donald was toned down, which was strategic. Every step she takes on the stage, every smile she forces, is manufactured for the moment. She likely wanted to step back so Trump could bury himself. She was also deliberate in responding to audience questions on a personal level, though it felt strained. Regardless, she outshined Trump in this regard, whose body language was not as rehearsed as Clinton’s and was often observed pacing in the background. She responded to legitimate questions about her emails and Bill’s admission of Obamacare’s troubles with the same standard apology and “clarification.” Clinton’s weakest moment came in response to a question of the latest WikiLeaks dump in which she admitted to needing public and private opinions on some issues. She provided an obscure explanation with Abraham Lincoln. It was perplexing, and Trump pounced. One of his best moments of the night.

Martha, Martha, Martha. Kudos to moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz of ABC News for the tight leash they kept on both candidates, although it did not come without some fireworks. Trump was quick to call out the moderators for not holding Clinton as strictly to the time limits as he was, even at one point calling the debate a “three-on-one.” In all, they had near equal time - Trump spoke 40 minutes, Clinton had 39.

A shocking lapse in discretion on the part of Raddatz involved her line of questioning Trump on Syria and a larger point on revealing defense strategy. In Trump’s response to the deteriorating conditions in Syra, he also placed some culpability on the government’s transparency. Raddatz incredulously begins to counter Trump’s point with reasons such as “psychological warfare” and “it might be to help get civilians out.” This was lost in the exchange, and it did not slow down Trump in delivering his response. Raddatz pulled a Candy Crowley (see Obama-Romney debates). Her role is to ask the important questions, ask them well, and keep things hopping along smoothly.

If you believe debate performances seek to defy expectations, Trump succeeded by surmounting his low expectations. However, post-debate polls still reflect a victory for Clinton 57% to 34%. There is widespread agreement that Trump was able to staunch the bleeding after fallout from the leaked tape, but the damage has certainly been inflicted. Clinton currently leads by double digits nationwide.

National Republicans are taking steps to disavow his comments, even rescind their endorsements. Speaker Paul Ryan announced his focus would intensify on House races. Republicans are cutting their losses – it’s a veiled attempt to salvage majorities in Congress if the presidency continues to shift Clinton’s way.

A brief glimmer of hope was felt at the end of the debate when the final question prompted Trump and Clinton to name a trait they admire about the other. Clinton complimented Trump’s children and what it reflects about their father. Trump stated he admired Clinton’s resilience. It was so refreshing. They shook hands as the moderators thanked us for watching.
It was a nice escape from reality.