5 Quick Takeaways From The Second Presidential Debate

5 Quick Takeaways From The Second Presidential Debate

Senior Editors David Harsanyi and Mollie Hemingway debate Donald Trump's surprising performance, the moderators' odd decisions, and whether town halls are from Satan.
David Harsanyi and Mollie Hemingway
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MOLLIE: Just before the debate began, John Podhoretz said, “This is the weirdest single moment in modern American political history. This moment. Right now.” It was. Trump went through some of the most difficult October days any presidential candidate ever has, and somehow he survived. He lost the endorsements of many Republican leaders and went through a media feeding frenzy even worse than the ones he typically incites. He held a press conference just before the debate with four women who had accused the Clintons of sexual assault and other bad treatment.

And he somehow showed up prepared, calm and ready. He made it difficult for Hillary Clinton and Anderson Cooper to pursue their line of questioning. He didn’t get tricked into losing his cool the way he did in the first debate. He hardly talked about himself — only once volunteering information on taxes that nobody asked for. He remained on offense consistently.

DAVID: It was incredibly weird. The most surprising thing, as it turned out, was that Donald Trump — maybe for the first time in his political career — seemed to learn from his previous mistakes. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve set the bar so excruciatingly low that I’m misreading reality. For me, though, it was pretty obvious that he’d prepared; he came equipped with rebuttals and something resembling a strategy. Of course, there were still those long-winded, indecipherable dialogues – especially in the first 15-20 minutes when the moderators were focused on the “locker room” talk — but generally speaking, he sounded more like a politician tonight.

MOLLIE: I actually thought he did well even in those early minutes. He was disciplined about avoiding too much talk about the vile comments he made in 2005 and stayed focused on his campaign’s larger agenda. I will say that it all might have been too little, too late. This was the performance he needed in the first debate and prior to the Friday bombshell about his lewd remarks.

DAVID: No, it won’t save him. It does, however, show us how vulnerable she is on policy. Whenever the debate veered away from his vulgarity or history, Trump scored points. Hillary scoffed at him, dismissing everything as a lie. There was plenty of dishonesty, but Trump’s comments about Bill Clinton’s history with women — and Hillary’s history of smearing those women after she knew what her husband had done — was true. What he said about Hillary’s destruction of government documents and carelessness with classified material was all true. He was right about Obamacare’s many failures (he even got her to admit it needed to be fixed.) He was right that Hillary-style crony capitalists help perpetuate bad tax policy. Everything he said about her support of Iraq was accurate. And so on. Clinton either ignored these attacks or was on the defensive. It wasn’t a good look.

Donald Trump

MOLLIE: Remember how Hillary had that weird video where she ranted about why she wasn’t 50 points ahead of Trump? That was before the media completely lost it on the “2011 Access Hollywood” remarks. Everyone in the media agreed these comments were unacceptable and, for the first time in a long time, he seemed on the ropes.

But by being so odious herself, she let him off the ropes. Her comments about Lincoln were horrible. She was asked if it’s “acceptable” for politicians to be “two-faced” in their views — a reference to a WikiLeaks document purporting to be from a speech she gave to a Wall Street corporation. She said she was inspired by Lincoln to make those remarks. There’s trying to spin your duplicity and there’s trying to spin your duplicity by dragging Abraham Lincoln into it. Trump hit back with, “She lied, and now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln.”

DAVID: I thought it was one of his best lines of the night. It’s the sort of comeback he seemed incapable of pulling off during the first debate.

The most important thing we learned from the second presidential debate is that Clinton is going to be an incredibly unpopular and ineffective president. If you can’t finish off Trump –a man we were told just had the worst week in campaign history – it’s safe to assume you’re not a particularly talented politician. So that’s good news for Republicans, I guess. Or, if you’re not a Trump fan, it’s bad news because he probably saved himself from that brewing establishment revolt (although who knows what kind of October surprises are in store.)

MOLLIE: Clinton did fine. She was her typical robotic self. She was blessed by the electoral gods to be running against Trump, so that’s probably sufficient. But she really cemented the idea that she’s the status quo candidate. About everything.

DAVID: Thirty years of “public service” and she can’t point to any tangible achievement.

MOLLIE: In many ways, Clinton did what Trump did last time — she talked about herself instead of attacking her opponent. And I’m not sure her discussions of herself were particularly noteworthy. She once again failed to have a case for her campaign and kept saying she’d like to talk about policy — but never really talked too much about policy. I don’t remember much of what she said. She also kept asserting Trump was wrong, without showing that he was wrong.

Still, she seemed more natural than ever before. She displayed strength and bite. She overall did fine, but given that she’s running against someone she says is a joke, she should have trounced him.

Moderators

DAVID: Lester Holt was awful, but Martha Raddatz was one of the worst, if not the worst, presidential debate moderator I’ve ever seen. Not only did the debate feature all the predictably skewed questions and follow-ups, but Raddatz literally got into an argument with Trump, demanding specifics. That wouldn’t bother me — in fact, I prefer it — if it were meted out equally. Yet Hillary spewed platitudes about basically everything all night long, and not once did Raddatz demand she provide strategy specifics; not once did Raddatz push back on Hillary’s fabrications (tax cuts caused the Great Recession?).

That brings me to the broader issue of this alleged “fact-checking” the media feels impelled to engage in during debates. Most of the pushback from moderators last night was arguable assertions or half-truths, and Trump was often debating 3-on-1, as he correctly asserted.

MOLLIE: Oh man, speaking of “fact checkers” you have got to see this.

It’s real, not a parody of fact checking. Totally real. Not photoshpped.

DAVID: Seriously, they’ve lost their minds. There are exceptions, yet so many journalists have been consumed by anti-Trump sentiment that they’ve lost any sense of professionalism — or, more precisely, Trump has given them an excuse to stop pretending. The moderators were hardly any better.

MOLLIE: They were both disasters. Cooper started poorly, visibly displaying anger, constantly interrupting Trump. He kept saying, in playground style, “Please let her talk. She let you talk.” Or something like that. This is just a strategically unwise move, as it seems petty and juvenile.

Raddatz started fine, because she was mostly silent, and got off a few good questions to each candidate, but then she just lost it. A common criticism of moderators is that they think they’re debating the candidates. But in last night’s debate, Raddatz seemed to forget that she wasn’t a candidate herself. The moment where she began debating Trump on foreign policy was epicly awful.

Raddatz, a friend of Obama’s, was also awful during the 2012 vice presidential debate. It’s odd that she was allowed anywhere near a debate stage.

Journalists are the least qualified and least trusted group in America to “moderate” debates. Either hire actual debate moderators — and there are professional debate moderators available for this — or just lose the moderators altogether.

Town Hall Format

DAVID: I don’t mind getting rid of moderators, but there are few things more ridiculous in politics than these fake populist “town hall” debates. For starters, the last people on earth who should be asking anyone questions are “undecideds,” the most confused group in the entire country. Now, I can understand a voter deciding to skip an election or throw his support to a third party or even the other party’s candidate, but if you’re still up in the air about what’s going on in 2016, you owe it to the nation avoid the ballot box.

Then again, there’s a zero percent chance these people were undecideds, right? It’s implausible that the woman who asked about the “Islamophobia” problem is an undecided voter. Nor is the person who asked about Obamacare’s many failures. These are people acting as proxies for the producers. It’s a silly and distracting gimmick. (Although I will concede that the guy who asked the candidates to say something nice about their opponent probably had the best question of the night.)

MOLLIE: I kind of dig the town hall format. Say what you want about these people who pretended to be undecided in order to get on TEEVEE, but they asked far more civil and worthwhile questions than the moderators did. Also, some candidates do a better job of speaking to journalists, and some do a better job of speaking to moderators. There’s no reason why most debates should be in the format that benefits one group over the other.

Also, while I agree that undecided voters are usually idiots, this year I give all undecideds a free pass. As I said on “Kennedy” the other night, it’s “Kodos and Kang” all the way down this year. Hard to make a good decision.

Journalistic Reaction

DAVID: As you know, I’ve been #NeverTrump from the start, so I have no sympathy for his cause. Still, I feel like I don’t live in the same political dimension as the anti-Trump commentariat.

The big takeaway from the liberal talking heads — CNN’s Van Jones, in particular, seemed to think this was the most precarious thing that’s happened in American history — was Trump’s promise to put Hillary in jail if he is elected. They act like he’s threatening her only as political opponent rather than a corrupt bureaucrat who was cleared in a dubious FBI investigation. It’s difficult to trust people who are shocked by Trump’s vulgarity but fine with Hillary’s favor trading and criminal behavior. We should have the bandwidth to be scandalized by both these things.

MOLLIE: I am not #NeverTrump but I have written critically of him for well over a year now. However, I try to be fair about him. When he does well, I acknowledge it. Our media are the equivalent of crazy exes with Trump. They loved him so hard during the primaries and are in some ways responsible for much of his rise. But now that he threatens their political goals, they just can’t control themselves. They get freaked out by literally every single thing he says and does.

Everyone ran with the groupthink talking point that the big take-away of the debate was that Trump said he’d throw Clinton in jail. Here, for example, is Jeffrey Goldberg: “The headline so far: Donald Trump threatens to throw his political rival in jail if he wins. This is what happens in dictatorships.”

There are multiple problems with this. For one, that’s not what he said. He did make a devastating jail line. Watch it here:

The room in which I watched the debate loved this line. Just imagine a bunch of people saying “holy [expletive redacted]” over and over and over. It was a moment. An absolute moment. One of the problems Clinton has is that she is perceived as above the law. People in both parties think she’s been able to get away with breaking laws that the rest of us would serve jail time for. So this line was very well delivered. Earlier, he’d said he’d appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her lawbreaking. This is because of the highly partisan and completely corrupt investigation that seemed designed in every way, shape and form to not hold her accountable.

But to say that Trump promised to jail Clinton only makes sense if you believe she’s guilty. As Ben Domenech wrote, “Appointing a special prosecutor does not equal throwing in jail. Unless she’s, you know, guilty.”

The other problem with the Democrats and their many allies in the media running with this line is that while journalists and pundits find it distasteful, normal people love the idea that Clinton might possibly someday be held accountable for her lawbreaking. The more they freak out about Trump saying he’d bring justice, the more it reminds people that Trump is different from the people currently in charge. The media like to present it as if Trump is saying he’d be a dictator. Many people hear that he’d make politicians be treated the same way other people are.

DAVID: Speaking of dictators: the one thing Hillary didn’t think to mention when asked about the Supreme Court last night was the Constitution. She did remind everyone she wants to overturn Citizens United and empower government to ban documentaries critical of her and her friends (and perhaps Trump is in favor of this, as well, I don’t know where he stands on this issue right now.) For all the supposed anxiety the media claims to have over Trump’s authoritarianism and assaults on free expression, they never never ask Hillary about this blatant attack on the First Amendment. It’s another clue that there’s a lot of feigned outrage out there.

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