Monday, October 10, 2016

2016 Presidential Debate #2: Quick Reactions

I have never, in my life, seen a debate where expectations where set so low for one of the candidates. Donald Trump would have done "better than expected" if he managed to go the whole evening without being kicked off the ballot by his own party. And yet, at the start, he managed to possibly sink below a bar that was literally lying on the ground. He looked like hell. He could not stop sniffing. His answer to the question about his sexual assault braggadocio was beyond awful. His constant whining about the terrible biased moderators was simply pathetic. And then there was his horrifying promise to jail Hillary Clinton when the night was over -- a statement that goes well beyond "will Donald Trump be bad for America" and crosses into "will Donald Trump preserve democracy in America?"

He did, to be sure, get better as the night went on. For the most part, "better" just meant that he was merely incoherent -- repeating buzz words and talking points without even the semblance of substance behind them. Still, you could at least spot some potentially plausible themes (Clinton is all talk, no action) that could have resonance. And Clinton, for her part, didn't seem as comfortable with the format as she did in the first debate. Her big strength the first time around was basically acting as if Donald wasn't in the room -- refusing to engage him, refusing to give him oxygen. The more free-wheeling town hall format (and Trump's incessant interruptions) seemed to nudge her towards feeding the troll Trump, and not to her benefit. Finally, it has to be said that Trump's last answer ("say one nice thing about your opponent") was actually, genuinely, not-grading-on-a-curve excellent.

But still, the absolute best you could say for Trump was this was a draw (CNN's instant poll gave Clinton a solid victory, YouGov gave her a narrower win). And a draw isn't going to cut it for a candidate who is falling behind and whose  campaign is floundering.

So right now, I'm less focused on the horse race aspects, and more on where we are as a nation. Ezra Klein got it right a few days ago:
But the question isn’t whether Trump has any decency. We’ve known for some time that he doesn’t. The question is whether we have any decency — whether we will elect this man, or even come close to electing this man, knowing all we know about him.
What's sad about tonight is the way it represents such a retrogression for our nation. The world is changing at a breakneck pace, and with these changes come new and novel concerns. The problems that have emerged -- getting universal health care for everyone, ensuring that equality is true in practice as well as creed, overcoming unprecedented environmental hazards that threaten our entire ecosystem (just to name a few) -- are both difficult but also solvable if we put our heads down and work on them. Yet what the Trump candidacy has shown -- even if he loses -- is that we're still stuck on the basics. "Do we jail our political opponents?" "Do we brag about our ability to assault women?" "Do we impose flat bans on entire religious groups?" This is all 101-level material, and yet this is what we are spending our political efforts on.

America deserves better than this. But we're not going to get it, not because Hillary Clinton isn't qualified to tackle these issues -- she absolutely is -- but because Trump has dragged us back from a mature democracy to a faltering, barely functioning one. And that is truly unforgivable.

(See my reaction to the first debate here)

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