Jane Caro analyses the second Presidential debate between Trump and Clinton to see who possessed the better temperament…
The best part of the second Presidential debate was the last couple of minutes. I don’t know if the rest of the world gave a huge sigh of relief when the final questioner asked the two candidates to name what it was they admired about the other one, but I certainly did. It felt like such a necessary corrective to what has been the most corrosive, nasty and personal election contest I have ever witnessed.
What was also interesting was how each candidate offered an answer that undercut the gender stereotypes that have been such a destructive undercurrent in this contest.
Clinton complimented Trump on his kids, implicitly praising his abilities as a parent. (I rather wish she’d been more explicit about it, in fact.) Trump acknowledged Clinton’s indomitability as a fighter. “She just doesn’t quit.”
It was only the second moment of anything like civility in a tense and uncomfortable 90 minutes. The first was when Trump said he agreed with everything Clinton said in her answer to the first question about whether the Presidential candidates were appropriate role models for children. However, it was noticeable that neither candidate shook the other’s hand when they first entered the arena.
The rest of the debate was a rather less entertaining replay of the first one, even down to Trump sniffing and interrupting at regular intervals. Clinton once again held her nerve and refused to allow Trump to goad her. She walked away from his remarks about her husband and his past with other women. It was the right tactic for her and it was the right tactic for Trump that he let it go at that.
In an ordinary Presidential contest, I think we would have to say Clinton won on points. She gave substantial and well-informed answers. She was particularly strong on healthcare and on military tactics against ISIS in the Middle East. It was here that her vast experience really shone. She refused to let Trump get under her skin even when he upped the ante to quite extraordinary levels. This exchange which followed some direct threats made to Clinton by Trump about commissioning a Special Prosecutor to investigate her (what, another one?) if he becomes President, made me gasp.
Clinton: It’s just as well a man of his temperament is not in charge of the law in this country…
Trump (interjecting): Because you’d be in gaol.
However, a lot of people will probably give the debate to Trump (I think Piers Morgan already did, even before it ended) mostly because he held his temper better than he did in the last one. He didn’t ramble quite as much and – I think – had clearly done at least some preparation. That’s the problem when the expectations of the two candidates are so different. We expect Clinton to be cool, substantial and prepared. We don’t know what to expect from Trump, so remaining relatively normal is a win for him. We no longer even expect him to tell the truth or anything vaguely resembling the truth. Despite video evidence to the contrary, he continues to deny things he has said and accuse Clinton of doing things she has not done. His attempts to hold her responsible for all sorts of things gave her one of her best moments. When he challenged her about why she hadn’t solved the economy, jobs, energy, health care (I rather lost count at that point) while a Senator, she fired back that she was a Democrat Senator while there was a Republican President.
Trump’s weakest moments came when he kept interrupting – a terrible turn-off for women, because we’ve all experienced it so often and it infuriates us on our own behalf and on Clinton’s. Women are the voters he desperately needs to win.
But his worst mistakes were when he played the victim. Whining about how much time Clinton was being allowed and accusing the moderators of bias, at one point complaining that the debate was “one on three”. On this side of the TV screen, it felt like Trump spoke much more than Clinton but said far less. No doubt a forensic word count is being done as I write. He also indulged in a spat with moderator Martha Raddatz. This did nothing but confirm the belief he has problems with women in authority. It was embarrassing and silly but it also reminded people of his response to Megyn Kelly at the Republican candidates’ debate.
They were both fairly brutal in their attacks on one another, going over old ground – Clinton rode Trump about his attacks on the parents of a Muslim American soldier who was killed fighting for the US. This led to an awful moment when Trump said that if he’d been President, Captain Khan would still be alive. Clinton used a phenomenon she called “The Trump Effect” powerfully when she talked about a rise in bullying behaviour in schools being directly attributed by teachers to Trump’s style of rhetoric.
The difference, it seems to me, is that Clinton will attack Trump on his behaviour, his character, his policies, his (extremely) lose relationship with facts and the truth, his statements and his contradictions – but she does not attempt to bully him, nor has she ever directly threatened his freedom. When Trump accuses Clinton of having “hatred in her heart”, twists her excellent answer about what she said in one of her speeches into an accusation that Abraham Lincoln was lying, or threatens her with actual incarceration, I think he plays directly into her hands.
I don’t think Trump did enough in this debate to turn the polls around and win the election, particularly as he clearly has no idea how to appeal to women voters or anyone, really, other than his base. By merely being marginally less of a nutjob than he was in the first debate, however, he may have done enough to stop haemorrhaging his remaining support.
Just keep away from twitter at 3.30am, Donald. And pray there aren’t any more hot mic videos out there that you don’t know about.