Notes on the Second Presidential Debate

[Here are my notes on the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate.]

My friends, welcome to The Freedom Habit, where we gaze into the abyss and report back, so you won’t have to.

You’re welcome. I’ll tell you how to thank me later.

The second presidential debate was Sunday evening. It was calculated by some to be the end of Donald Trump’s campaign, in the wake of some lecherous old audio someone released last week. It wasn’t that. Whether he won or not, I don’t know, but he survived for the moment.

I won’t say it was pretty.

I’ll tell you what I thought, and some of what was said, but if you want to be comprehensive, you’ll have to contemplate the abyss yourself. Video and a transcript are easy to find on the web.

It’s up to you to decide which of my thoughts are subjective and which are objective. I simply represent them as what I thought, either during or after the spectacle.

second presidential debate

Pregame Show

Not long before the debate, the Trump campaign called a press conference with several of Bill Clinton’s best-known victims. I’m probably supposed to say, alleged victims. It was a bold, desperate, tacky move . . .

But not as tacky as trying to seat them in the Trump family box at the debate itself. The Debate Commission refused to allow it, but did permit them to be seated in the audience. It was a reasonable compromise under the circumstances, but I felt sorry for one audience member in particular: Chelsea Clinton. (Not so much her parents.)

I switched channels a bit as the broadcasts were beginning, and this was what all the commentators were talking about. Point to Trump.


Opening Coin Toss

Martha Raddatz of ABC and Anderson Cooper of CNN moderated. The format was a town hall, with questions submitted in advance online and by the Gallup-chosen audience of undecideds, then screened and chosen by the moderators and their team. The moderators explained that the audience members would ask their own questions, and then the moderators would jump in with follow-up questions.

The venue was at Washington University in St. Louis, a very fine school indeed.

When the two candidates entered the stage, they smiled at each other and spoke an awkward greeting, but they didn’t shake hands. The omission seemed appropriate.

About that Tape

The first question was, in part, “Do you feel you are modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?” It’s where we had to start.

To that question and some follow-ups, Mr. Trump explained solemnly, and in a refreshingly adult-like manner, the following:

“This was locker room talk. . . . I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. . . . I’m very embarrassed by it.”

(Oh, by the way, I’ll take care of ISIS.)

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words. . . . I apologize for those words. . . . But what Bill Clinton did . . .”

This was a recurring theme: Trump words vs. Clinton actions, for the bad stuff. (Later, for the good stuff, it was the opposite: “They talk. They don’t get it done.”)

One of the moderators asked Mr. Trump if he had ever committed the acts — the assaults — he talked about. “Have you ever done those things?”

I thought, they’re setting him up for later — sometime after the debate — because they have someone who says he did, or they think they can find someone, or they’re willing to create someone. I wondered, will they at any point in the evening ask Mrs. Clinton if she did any of the things of which she’s accused? I don’t recall that they did.

The question came, “Trump says the campaign has changed him. When did that happen?”

Late last week, if at all, I thought. But the question was a lot like the classic trap, “When did you stop beating your wife?” You don’t answer that question, and he didn’t.

He accused President Clinton of abusing women and Mrs. Clinton of defending him. Mrs. Clinton wouldn’t comment on any of these charges. She just said, “So much of what he just said is not right.”

It was too much to hope for that someone would then ask her, “Then which parts are correct?”

It was strong stuff, with the audience, the moderators, and the opponent all aligned against Mr. Trump. On one hand, he certainly deserved it. On the other, given that he had worked himself into such a ridiculous and disgusting situation, he handled himself as well as he reasonably could, and better than I expected.

I’m not defending, just analyzing.

And some of us never talked like that in a locker room. Ever.

Immoderate Moderators — Again

We weren’t very far into the debate when the audience cheered for Mr. Trump. They’re only supposed to do that at the beginning and the end, so the moderators reminded them to be silent. There was no such reminder a moment later or two times after that, when the crowd cheered Mrs. Clinton.

Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz
Anderson Cooper, left, and Martha Raddatz

This overt bias paled next to the time when moderator Martha Raddatz began to debate with Mr. Trump directly about Aleppo. It was bizarre and inappropriate. And people who are sensitive to such things, who support Mrs. Clinton, may well be upset, because it tacitly suggested that she wasn’t strong enough to handle him herself. I’m pretty sure she is, but given her gender and persistent rumors of chronic health issues, I’d expect some folks to be especially sensitive to such things.

Exchanging Punches

She mentioned “the racist lie that President Obama was not born in the United States of America.” (It’s not a lie until you know better, and it’s hard to construe it as racist.) She said he owes the president an apology.

He said, “You owe President Obama an apology. . . . Your campaign started it.” I understand this to be true, but I’m not sure how much it matters.

He said he was surprised to see Bernie Sanders (after his defeat) “sign on with the devil” — meaning, support Mrs. Clinton.

He promised a special prosecutor for the e-mail abuses, if he’s elected.

She said — so often that it hardly matters to what specifically — “Everything he just said is absolutely false.”

She said it’s a good thing “someone like Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”

He said, “Because you’d be in jail.”

A moderator asked if her handling of the e-mails wasn’t “extremely careless.”

She said it was a mistake, and she takes responsibility for using a personal e-mail account.

(Seriously, and sniping at public figures generally, not just her, what do they think “take responsibility” means? Apologize, but escape without serious consequences? How is that different from not taking responsibility?)

She said, “I take classified materials very seriously, always have.”

At some point Mr. Trump complained that it was “one on three” — which it was, and everyone knew it, but he’d have done better not to whine. Then he accused the moderators of enforcing time limits against him more than her — which might have been true, but it wasn’t egregious. And I didn’t mind hearing a little less of him, if that’s what was happening.

A Few Moments for Actual Policy

She said we’re going to fix ObamaCare.

He said it’s a total disaster, and she wants to go to a single-payer system.

He asked her about her husband saying ObamaCare was crazy.

She did what the left always does, talking as if repealing it would simply leave a vacuum, when the plan is to repeal and replace.

Later came a very good question: Isn’t the carnage in Syria a lot like the Holocaust, when we waited too long to help?

Indeed. Look up their answers, if you please, and see if either satisfied you. I was underwhelmed. Granted, though, it’s a thorny question, and there is no bloodless solution.

He called her out — and President Obama as well — for not being able to name our enemy: “radical Islamic terrorism.” This was nice to hear, to be sure — but I wished for someone else to be making the point.

And Back to the Character Flaws

In the context of last week’s Wikileaks revelations, which had her explaining in private speeches that one needs a public policy and a private policy, she was asked if it’s okay for politicians to be two-faced. She said that she had been talking about Abraham Lincoln. (This was one of the very few times she stammered, in the sense of not speaking smoothly, and pausing in the middle of thoughts.)

Abraham Lincoln? Was I the only one rolling my eyes?

He said, “She lied. Now she’s blaming the lie on . . . Abraham Lincoln.”

She said that never in history has a foreign power tried as hard to influence our elections as Russia is trying now. I’d be surprised if Russia isn’t monkeying around, but I doubt it’s an historic first. And really, which foreigners are trying to get her elected?

Mr. Trump felt moved to tell us how he was trusted, because of his great balance sheet, with the renovation of the Old Post Office in Washington, DC, situated between the White House and Congress . . .

. . . So I couldn’t fully disbelieve the second sentence of this statement, “Everything you’ve heard from Donald is not true. He lives in an alternate reality.”

I believe the Post Office bit, actually, but if he were any other candidate, I wouldn’t believe he thought it important enough to mention.

In any case, the news of alternate reality was welcome. I was starting to think I had departed for one myself.

She was asked how she can unite a country when she’s written off millions of Americans as “deplorables.” Her answer said nothing new, but Anderson Cooper’s follow-up question pulled no punches:

You said that half of Donald Trump’s supporters are, quote, “deplorables, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.” You later said you regretted saying half. You didn’t express regret for using the term “deplorables.” To Mr. Carter’s question, how can you unite a country if you’ve written off tens of millions of Americans?

Mr. Trump said, “When she said ‘deplorables,’ she meant it.” And he said she “has tremendous hate in her heart.”

He later pointed out that he’s investing about $100 million of his own money in his campaign. He noted that Mrs. Clinton has amassed millions, and asked why she doesn’t put some of her own money into her campaign, for the sake of a little more independence from donor expectations. It was a fairly weak punch, I thought, and it didn’t seem to land.

Good Grief, Taxes Again

She claimed that he hasn’t paid taxes — presumably, income taxes — in fifteen years. She’s either extrapolating on a speculative report in the New York Times, based on a single leaked return, or she has illegal access to fourteen years of tax returns we haven’t seen. After the FBI files in the 1990s and the overt politicization of the IRS under President Obama, can we be confident that the latter isn’t true?

I don’t really care, actually; it’s a relatively small thing. My point is, I’d have advised to be a bit less brazen. Indirectly, this is almost as foolish a game of chicken as her preaching the necessity of getting money out of politics, when she’s a world-class expert at getting money from politics, or declaring our great national need to invest in cybersecurity, when . . . you know. She may be right about one or both of these, but she has no standing on either topic. And it’s unnecessary in this race.

I Agreed with Both

For one brief, shining moment, I agreed with each candidate, at least in part. The subject was US Supreme Court nominations.

She said the Senate should have voted on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. I wholeheartedly agree.

He said we need justices in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia, who respect the Constitution of the United States. I wholeheartedly agree.

second presidential debate

Thoughts in Summary

Both candidates were slammed fairly hard by the audience questions, the moderators, and each other for things they’ve said and done in the past. They asked for it. Neither gets (or wants) any pity from me.

But no thanks to the primary voters on both sides, who got us this bipartisan train wreck.

All in all, Mr. Trump interrupted less than in the first debate, but attacked more. Mrs. Clinton stammered a lot less than in the first debate — only once or twice — and seemed a lot less canned. She held her own. But if she was supposed to make this the end of his campaign, she didn’t.

I’m really not sure whether this debate was a little better than the first, overall, or immeasurably worse. It more nearly made me physically sick, for what it’s worth.

Here’s what I don’t understand: If Mrs. Clinton would keep these debates focused on serious discussions of actual policy, not on ugly words and bad behavior which everyone already knows too well, she’d bury him before the first hour was over. Why doesn’t she do that?

Maybe they’re saving that for the last debate? Just in case anyone is still watching?

One more curmudgeonly thought, if you please. The disgusting Trump audio we heard last week told us nothing we didn’t already know about the man. Maybe I should generously celebrate the fact that lots of Republicans, including Gary Herbert, my state’s governor, are finally denouncing Mr. Trump. But I think they’re very late to the party. Kudos to Senator Mike Lee, to Mitt Romney, and to anyone else who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid for months, tben finally spit it out just lately.

Yes, I’ve been a bit cranky here. I’m quite sincere in that. I had to let 24 hours pass, so I could resist the temptation to be absolutely scathing from end to end. It was an ugly, deplorable debate in an ugly, deplorable race, and it’s going to get worse.

If you’d like to thank me for watching the debate so you don’t have to, you might consider liking my Freedom Habit Facebook page. Or if that’s too political right now, you could like my nonpolitical page, Bendable Light, also on Facebook. (There you find not unicorns and rainbows, exactly, but talk of reading, writing, religion, marching bands, and other topics which, lately, are a lot more fun for me.)

A Final, More Respectable Note

The last question was, Would either of you name one positive thing you respect in the other?

She said, his children. (In more words.)

A nice, classy answer.

He said she doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up, and she fights hard.

Another nice, classy answer — and a welcome moment of truth amid . . .

Good grief.

At the end of the debate, they shook hands.

And in Conclusion

A Hillary Clinton presidency is likely to be catastrophic for Americans, our freedom, and the world at large, especially coming on the heels of our eight-year departure from the rule of law and from strength and common sense on the world stage.

A Donald Trump presidency is likely to be catastrophic for Americans, our freedom, and the world at large.

I don’t know which will be worse. If you do, or even suspect you do, by whatever light you see, good for you. Vote accordingly, and I won’t indict you for it. I have already granted amnesty to all my friends, family, and readers for their — your — votes in this race and the reasons behind them. I will not second-guess you.

As bad as either outcome is likely to be, there is one possible end that would certainly be worse: A mass movement to replace the political system which produced this sad choice between competing disasters.

Presidents come and go. If we dismantle our system because we failed it this time, we will not likely get it back.

Just a thought.

Be well.