Wild Town Hall Debate May Have Changed Few Minds

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, 2nd debate

Image courtesy of MSNBC

Wild Town Hall Debate May
Have Changed Few Minds

| published October 10, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump met on stage in St. Louis Sunday night for the second of three scheduled Presidential debates—a town forum format exchange which, like the first debate, produced sparks and eventual explosions on stage.

Though the format was crafted well ahead of time to give an opportunity to undecided voters—dozens of whom shared the stage with the candidates—to quiz the candidates on policy questions, the televised event quickly turned nasty, with both candidates exchanging harsh personal insults and each accusing the other of being the biggest liar.

And though the debate moderators were making an obvious attempt to maintain decorum and tight control over the format through insistent reminders to each candidate when they talked past their allotted time, Trump and his supporters have clearly suggested that the debate moderators—CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’ Martha Radditz—were holding Trump to a standard different than that of Clinton. At one point Trump called the debate “three against one.”

Despite the town hall format and the theater-in-the-round arrangement, the debate left little time for those present in the room to grill the candidates on the specifics of their domestic and foreign policy proposals, and produced even less clarity for the millions of undecided voters who watched the event on television. Though town hall type forums are historically more relaxed and easy-going, Sunday night’s exchange in St. Louis was arguably more intense and contentious than the previous debate.

The first question was predictable—perhaps inevitable—within the context of one of the most dramatic weeks in politics in recent times: do you feel you’re modeling appropriate behavior for young people? The question opened up the Pandora’s Box of talking points which has dominated social media, grabbed the headlines, usurped news of a hurricane which may now cost Americans $4 billion, and driven the Republican Party into open revolt.

Late last week, 2005 video footage surfaced of an unguarded Trump making lewd and lascivious on-microphone comments about women, including his contention that he can grope, fondle or kiss them without invitation because of his celebrity status. The leak of the footage into the mainstream media has sparked outrage on social media, dominated the news, and even driven some within the GOP to demand that Trump resign from the Republican ticket.

Clinton addressed the question directly, without naming Trump, by telling the questioner that yes, she does feel she sets a solid example to young people through her personal policy of refraining from insult to anyone because of gender, skin color, religion, or disability. Trump, after a brief reminder that he had apologized for the incident, attempted to redirect the question into one of equivalency: in a world in which dangerous terrorists and nuclear-armed autocrats threaten global peace, why would we dwell on “locker room” banter from 11 years ago. And as the debate moderators sought to drill down on the question of Trump’s morality and fitness for command, Trump attempted to pivot the question toward the issue of former President Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct, pointing out that several of the women allegedly harassed by the Clintons were in the audience that night.

The questions of Trump’s controversial sexist comments were expected, and most political observers agreed that the issue would be center stage in St. Louis.

Also expected were old and new questions regarding Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email account for State Department business during the time when she served as America’s top diplomat, and questions about her relationship with Wall Street after transcripts containing comments made in 2013 speeches to investment firm Goldman Sachs were leaked last week—paid speeches in which Clinton appears to endorse taking some stances in public for which has sharp disagreements with in private, and comments on global trade, jobs and immigration which contradict her stated positions on the same issues.

After Martha Radditz reminded Clinton of the emails marked either classified or top secret, the former Secretary of State again apologized for the use of the private email and the private server, and attempted to square her own interpretations of the controversy with the largely critical statements made by FBI director James Comey. Clinton says there is no evidence that anyone hacked into the emails or her server, and stressed that there is no evidence that any hostile eyes came in contact with the classified or top secret documents included among the thousands of emails sent and received.

It was a topic, however, that Trump repeatedly returned to during the 95-minute debate. Trump also admonished Clinton numerous times for her staff’s deletion of some 30,000 or more emails even after a subpoena was issued requesting access to the same correspondence. Referencing the leak of DNC emails earlier this year, Trump also invoked the name of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s arch-rival from the long, bitter Democratic primary and caucus season, on several occasions telling those present that Sanders was proved right in his contention that top officials of the Democratic National Committee were secretly lobbying for a Clinton win and maneuvering behind-the-scenes to minimize the political chances of her opponents, such as Sanders, and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.

Clinton fired back that Trump has become so unpopular and unliked by Republicans that many within the GOP are abandoning the billionaire altogether, some calling for Trump to step aside, others demanding that the RNC invoke emergency rules and contingencies to replace Trump as the nominee with running mate Mike Pence.

The forum was marred by constant cross-talk and persistent interruptions by both candidates (though Trump interrupted the proceedings more often than did Clinton), often accompanied by the futile attempts of Cooper and Radditz to intervene, making some brief stretches of no doubt indecipherable to those in the audience and those watching on TV. Though Clinton attempted a controlled, disciplined approach, some observers noted that her barely-checked frustration left her looking stiff, uncomfortable, even robotic. Likewise, Trump’s anger and dismay was at times visible just below the surface, triggering moments where he would lash out at Clinton or the moderators for what he noted on several occasions seemed an unbalanced approach.

Post-debate questions immediately swirled within the commentary provided by political reporters over whether Cooper and Radditz intervened too much on Clinton’s behalf and cut off Trump too often; this talking point will no doubt fuel what has already become a divisive campaign framed by perceived unfairness in the media and in the press, though some neutral reporters noted after the debate that each candidate in fact received an almost identical amount of airtime in their comments and responses. Trump, on at least one occasion, complained that the moderators cut him off only a second after his time was up, though they had just allowed Clinton to talk at least 40 seconds past her allotted time.

When confronted by uncomfortable questions, each candidate often pivoted or shifted toward the most recent negative narratives of their opponent—Trump turning questions about his fitness for command and the recent release of tapes showing his predisposition for uninvited sexual advances toward women into questions of Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton’s treatment of women allegedly harassed or abused by the former president; Clinton, pivoting away from questions about her email accounts, her paid speeches to Wall Street banks, and her apparent lack of transparency into questions about Trump’s past statements on race, religion, immigration and women.

Both candidates seemed frustrated by the moderators attempts to intervene and redirect the conversation, especially Trump, who groused when Cooper attempted to move on to the question of an audience member.

“I’d like to know, Anderson,” Trump interrupted “why you aren’t bringing up the subject of the emails.”

“We brought up the emails,” Cooper responded.

“No, you didn’t. It hasn’t,” Trump said, “and it hasn’t been finished.”

The pacing, tenor, and tone of the forum also left little time for direct policy discussions, much to the disappointment of some of the panel participants who had been selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates to be present to ask questions. Members of the panel were selected by the commission because they had stated they had not made up their minds who to vote for in November.

During a long back and forth exchange over Clinton’s emails, Trump offered his views and interpretations on the legal aspects and security considerations of Clinton’s use of her private email account. Trump also assured those watching that one of his first actions as President will be to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton and her staff for the deletion of thousands of emails.

“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the laws of our country,” Clinton said cooly.

“Because you would be in jail,” Trump shot back.

Questions of media meddling in the debate will no doubt resonate within some circles for days. Some conservative websites and news services complained on social media during the debate that several of the questions seemed pre-staged or pre-loaded in favor of Clinton, not the least of which were several directed seemingly with Trump in mind; the first question about the presidential candidates as role models, for example, and a later question from a Muslim member of the panel regarding religious tolerance. But other political observers quickly noted that Trump may have missed several opportunities to close the widening gap between his campaign message and the minority communities by not handling the questions with better skill and by avoiding any form of outreach—the Muslim member of the panel, for example, and later questions from Latino and African-American panelists.

Both candidates sparred intensely over the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare with Trump denouncing it as broken and dysfunctional, and Clinton defending the need for a comprehensive healthcare system. She attempted to walk back the negative comments offered by former President Bill Clinton earlier last week in which he said that Obamacare’s dysfunctions include inexplicably higher costs and a failure of the program to be truly affordable to all potential participants. Trump said he would scrap the program altogether in favor of an open market. When the moderators pressed Trump for an explanation of how he would implement such a system, he responded by saying “it will be great, a great system which will save billions.”

Scored on points alone, many political analysts suggest that Clinton won—at least by the book and by the traditional parameters attached to debates. But others suggest a narrow moral victory of sorts for Trump, at least as far as his perhaps successful attempt to stanch the bleeding caused by the latest brouhaha over the “banter” heard on the videotape from 2005. Trump has faced withering criticism from scores of Republicans in Congress, many of whom have called for Trump’s ouster from the GOP ticket. Sixteen Republican members of the Senate and three dozen GOP members of the House have called for the party to dump Trump. Others have withdrawn endorsements or announced on social media that they do not plan to vote for Trump.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Trump Defiant as Republicans Call For Ouster; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 8, 2016.

Clinton Versus Trump: Sparks Turn to Explosions in First Debate; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 27, 2016.