I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don't agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that.
- Hillary Clinton
I will say this about Hillary. She doesn't quit. She doesn't give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She is a fighter. I disagree with much of what she is fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases, but she does fight hard and she doesn't quit and she doesn't give up and I consider that to be a very good trait.
- Donald Trump
That a smidgen of extra time was carved out in the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to make space for a conciliatory question — by member of the audience Carl Becker, who asked each candidate to name one positive thing they respected in their opponent — showed just how acrimonious the evening's (early morning IST) proceedings from Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, had been.
But then, it was always going to be nasty. Read all the kicks, punches and blows that the candidates threw at each other here.
The writing was on the wall from Saturday morning (IST) when news channels began to play excerpts from a video of the Republican presidential candidate putting on his best impression (we hope!) of a fratboy and making the sort of comments that we will not deign to reproduce here. Almost moments later, Wikileaks had put out a tranche of leaked emails sent by Clinton — particularly those relating to the content of her private speeches. And then, hours before the debate was set to begin, Trump called a surprise press conference that featured him flanked by Kathy Shelton, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey — who have over the years accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual assault — and Paula Jones, whose revelations helped throw open the lid on the Monica Lewinsky affair.
And while the repercussions of the leaked emails and revival of the sordid Bill Clinton saga were yet to manifest themselves fully at the time of writing, Trump's video tape had already earned him the rancour and 'disgust' of quite a few Republicans, including John McCain, Paul Ryan, John Kasich and Condoleeza Rice. Most worryingly for the Trump camp, not only had Mike Pence issued a statement condemning his running mate's views and cancelled his forthcoming campaign commitments, but he also maintained a notable Twitter silence throughout the debate — going to the extent of refraining from even retweeting — until the very end, when he tweeted:
— Mike Pence (@mike_pence) October 10, 2016
Whether it was done of his own volition, or at the behest of his campaign team/party, or because he had a change of heart is not known. What is, however, known is how both Trump and Clinton went about attempting to weather their own personal storms, while attempting to score points over each other. And considering the format of the second debate — in which candidates respond to questions from the audience, both in person and those on social media — the stage was set for fireworks. Long overdue fireworks, it could be argued after the way the vice-presidential debate fizzled out last week.
So what happened?
Given the bitterness that filled the hours leading up to the event, it was quite unsurprising to see Trump and Clinton eschew the customary handshake, and opt for a cold smile and nod instead. And if you were under any impression that moderators Anderson Cooper (CNN) and Martha Raddatz (ABC News) would let the candidates begin things with a puffball question, you were very mistaken.
Do you feel you're models appropriate and positive behaviour for today's youth?
The way Trump and Clinton chose to answer this question was quite indicative of the approaches they would take in the second round. The Democratic Party's candidate did well to focus on her theme of 'Stronger Together' by talking about the US' diversity and how people should come together to work together, while Trump stuck to his tried and tested line about how most (if not all the policies) of the ruling regime were a 'disaster'. Neither of which were surprising, since you would expect a candidate of the ruling party to extol the virtues of the country under the present administration and the candidate of the Opposition party to decry everything. Clinton was her usual self, exuding her customary confidence and smiling broadly. Trump surprisingly began the debate extremely calmly, with a sedate demeanour and gentle voice.
But neither answered the question. And so, they had to be reminded by an alert Cooper — a major change from the relaxed Lester Holt — to do so. The CNN veteran elaborated that the question was in reference to the infamous 'locker room banter' tapes.
"This was locker room talk. I'm not proud of it. I apologise to my family. To the American people. Certainly I'm not proud of it. But this is locker room talk. When we have a world where you have (Islamic State) chopping off heads, where you have frankly drowning people in steel cages, wars, and horrible, horrible fights all over — so many bad things happening... And they look at our country and see what's going on. Yes, I'm very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it's locker room talk and it's one of those things. I will knock the hell out of (Islamic State). We're going to defeat (Islamic State)... Get on to much more important things and much bigger things."
That said, it's not as though Trump avoided Anderson's repeated attempts to get the real estate tycoon to reply. He noted that it was 'locker room talk' and went on to state that "Nobody has more respect for women than I do." Forgive us for reminiscing about former England football manager Sam Allardyce's remark that there was 'no Premier League coach more sophisticated' than him, but the comparison seems apt.
Meanwhile, after pointedly mentioning the fact that with prior Republican candidates — with whom she disagreed on matters of politics, policy and principles, she never questioned their fitness to serve, she repeated that Trump was unfit to be president and conducted (for what seemed like the umpteenth time) a roll-call of all the communities Trump has offended, but no answer was forthcoming:
"I want to send a message we all should. To every boy and girl and indeed to the entire world. That America is great and we are great, because we are good and we will respect one another. And we will work with one another and we will celebrate our diversity."
Trump's response probably best summed up our feelings at this point: "It's just words, folks. Just words. Those words, I've been hearing them for many years."
In the first debate, Clinton had taken umbrage to the fact that she was criticised for being prepared for the debate, replying sassily as she did that she was 'preparing to become president'. Under normal circumstances, preparation is always seen as being a good thing. But, these times are far from normal. The way Clinton and Trump ducked and weaved past tough questions, to instead go on a long tirade about something that had clearly been rehearsed and prepared — but was incredibly irrelevant at the time — came off less as being contrived than contemptuous to the question, and the questioner by association. If it was Trump's 'tough talk' on Islamic State when asked about his lewd remarks was a bit off, Clinton quoting Michelle Obama's "When they go low, you go high" remark when asked about the serious allegations against Bill Clinton was downright cringeworthy.
What did we learn?
Debates of these nature are largely an exercise in public perception management. Candidates seek to portray their intention as the purest, their motivation as the strongest, their campaign as the cleanest and their running mate as the supportive-est (yes, we know there's no such word, but sticking to themes and all that).
On the topic of how to deal with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, Trump sketched out a plan that was far removed from the one stated by his running mate, Pence, at last week's debate. After being reminded by Raddatz of what what Pence had said, Trump replied, "Okay, he and I haven't spoken and I disagree."
"You disagree with your running mate?" asked an incredulous Raddatz. Her incredulity notwithstanding, the Trump-Pence ticket — if not Trump himself — is likely to have taken quite a hit at that point, because amidst conjecture (admittedly, mostly speculative) that the vice-presidential candidate might walk out, coupled with the fact that he maintained Twitter silence through the debate, the idea that Trump and Pence were not on the same page is the sort of stuff that could be fatal for a campaign.
But, Trump gained points elsewhere.
By constantly scrapping with the moderators — who to the neutral viewer, did appear to be slightly harder on Trump than on Clinton — and then pointing out this bias (real or imagined) by first imploring the moderators, "I'd like to know why aren't you bringing up the emails? It hasn't been finished" and then sneering, "Nice, one on three", Trump did well to convey the idea that he was fighting the system alone and would possibly be the man to 'Make America Great Again'.
However, it was on the topic of how to deal with Assad's Syria that Trump for the first time (in these debates), showed some understanding of foreign policy when disputing Clinton's plans to assist the Syria rebels. "She talks in favour of the rebels," he fired back, "She doesn't even know who they are. Every time we take rebels, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else, we're arming people, and you know what happens? They end up being worse than the people." He wasn't wrong. The US does have a terribly history of arming the wrong people. Clinton would likely have had no answer to this statement. But as it turned out, the opportunity to drive home the advantage was squandered by Trump, as he set off on another rambling series of words and names crudely stitched together with a few numbers, conjunctions and prepositions, before tripping up on the Pence statement (see above).
Clinton's greatest source of points lay in her packaging. She carried herself in a dignified manner, sat comfortably yet upright (as compared to Trump slouching over the back of his chair and skulking around stage) and packaged her responses in a palatable manner. One very clear example comes to mind. Compare Trump and Clinton's responses to a question about Islamophobia:
First, here's the Trump version:
"You're right about Islamophobia and that's a shame. One thing we have to do is we have to make sure that because there is a problem, whether we like it or not — and we could be very politically correct, but whether we like it or not, there is a problem and we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on. When they see hatred going on, they have to report it."
And now, the Clinton version:
"My vision of America is an America where everyone has a place. If you're willing to work hard, you do your part, you contribute to the community. That's what America is. That's what we want America to be for, for our children and grandchildren. It's also very short-sighted and even dangerous. To be engaging in the kind of rhetoric that Donald has about Muslims. We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines... I've met with a lot of them and heard how important it is for them to feel they are wanted and included and part of our country, part of our homeland security and that's what I want to see."
Notice the difference? While Trump says Muslims 'have to' do something, Clinton says that 'we need' Muslims to do it. Let's also look at that 'something'. Trump wants Muslims to 'come in and report' when they see something going on, while Clinton wants them to 'be part of our eyes and ears'. Both candidates want the same thing out of the community, but it's in the branding of this request/demand that depicts the community in question either as a part of the problem or part of the solution.
A seasoned politician like Clinton gets that.
Who won this round?
For all the talk surrounding whether or not the Republican candidate would pull out of the race, Trump provided a near-perfect answer. He performed admirably this time around, relative to his performance in the first presidential debate at New York's Hofstra University. However, the degree of improvement probably seems a lot larger because of his fumbling and flustered performance the first time around. But, once again, he proved to be second-best to Clinton.
The former secretary of state looks like the more likely of the two to win the presidential election next month. If it's not the body language, it's the measured way in which each word is delivered. If it's not the ability to stay cool and keep her composure, it's the way she patiently works her way around a question rather than resorting to obvious stalling methods like praising every question. Certainly, she doesn't have all the answers and neither does Trump. Both have skeletons in the closets.
But on the strength of this debate, its clear which one is going to become the president. Who would be the better president will probably remain unknown.