This is a guest post by William Crotty, Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr Chair of Public Life ad Emeritus Professor of Political Science. Northeastern University.
There was a great deal of interest in the second presidential debate designed to take place in a looser, more free-form Town Hall format. The run-up to the debate had been witness to the most explosive events in a highly contentious and extraordinarily volatile presidential campaign. Donald Trump continued to make accusations concerning issues Hillary Clinton baited him on in the first debate. He had continued his attacks on a former Miss Universe emphasizing her weight and alleged she appeared in a sex tape (no such tape surfaced) among other things. A few days after the debate in a bizarre, even for this campaign, series of 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. tweets, he continued to demean the woman and – as critics saw it – women in general. Trump’s response when questioned on this and other campaign revelations concerning his views on women: “I have great respect for women. Nobody has greater respect for women than I do.” It would not be enough to silence those who saw his actions differently, as was to be seen shortly.
On another front, and one that Trump’s campaign was particularly vulnerable on given his claims to business successes, being a billionaire and emphasizing his economic experience as a particular qualification for the presidency. The New York Times ran a front-page story days before the second debate that raised questions as to Trump’s real estate success and approach to paying taxes. In detail, the story reported on a catastrophic series of business failures that Trump experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s. The report challenged the business deals Trump initiated, from casinos in Atlantic City to his real estate dealings and personal finances. These were the basis of Trump’s alleged fortune. The newspaper account reported on events in which his financial empire collapsed and was destroyed by poor investments, leading to at least three bankruptcies for Trump’s business holdings. The banks and financial institutions that had invested in Trump’s extensive holdings finally decided to keep Trump on a retainer and use his name on the casinos, hotels and the rest, feeling it would be more financially productive than if they forced his personal bankruptcy. His business partners, vendors and low level employees suffered financial or job losses.
The Times had obtained part of his state tax returns for 1995. It reported he had suffered catastrophic losses of nearly a billion dollars ($916 ml.) that could have allowed him to go as long as the following 18 years without paying taxes under the laws benefitting corporations, real estate developers and the wealthy. When asked in the second debate if he had used deductions to keep from paying taxes, he replied: “Of course I do.” He claimed Clinton’s major donors did the same and added: “I do pay tax. And I do pay federal taxes.” He nonetheless continued to refuse to make his tax returns public, a first for a presidential candidate.
Competing in explosiveness shortly after these revelations as to his business operations, was a Washington Post release of video footage from 2005. In it he was caught saying how he forced himself on women, married or unmarried, groping them and adding crude comments concerning the female anatomy. He went on to say that he would “automatically kiss women [he] considered beautiful.” He added: “… when you are a star, they let you do anything.” There was more but the tenor of his comments should be clear. Such accusations were not new. There were similar charges as to his treatment of female contestants on his “The Apprentice” television show and other charges including a 1990s deposition (later retracted) in a divorce proceeding from his first wife.
Clinton called the video “horrific” and others reacted much along the same lines Republicans nationwide either cut their ties to Trump, fearing the impact he would have on their campaigns or threatened to do so, depending on his performance in the Town Hall debates. Those disturbed by Trump’s behavior included Mike Pence, his vice presidential running mate. Pence at first refused to answer questions as to the video and Trump’s comments and then said he could not defend them, leading some Republicans to call for him to replace Trump as their party’s nominee.
Trump’s response to the uproar was: “No, I didn’t say that”; it was “locker room” talk nothing more, an argument he made repeatedly; it wasn’t him now; and so on. He denied he engaged in predatory behavior and he threatened to make Bill Clinton’s sexual history part of the debate, threats he made good on.
The day before the second debate was full of speculation as to whether Trump would apologize for his behavior, possibly withdraw from the race or attempt to stick it out. There was no need to wait long for an answer. A few hours before the debate began, Trump appeared with four women, said to be sexually victimized by the Clintons in a press conference. One woman claimed to have been raped by Bill Clinton; two others to have suffered predatory attacks; and a fourth claimed to have been raped when 12 years old and that Hillary Clinton served as the lawyer for the rapist. (True, although Clinton tried not to take on the case, she was appointed early on in her legal career by an Arkansas presiding judge). The women were bought to the debate. Trump introduced them; brought up their claims; and went on to say he was just about words while Bill Clinton acted and there was quite a difference between the two. Hillary Clinton he charged was an enabler. He threatened to make Bill Clinton’s behavior part of the campaign, threats he carried out. Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea were in the audience.
Hillary Clinton’s response to the video questioned Trump’s fitness to be president based on what she had heard:
“I said … that he is not fit to be commander in chief,” Clinton said. “What we all saw and heard … was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said the video doesn’t represent who he is. But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. We have seen this throughout the campaign … This is who Donald Trump is.” (Matt Viser and Annie Linskey, “Round 2 a tense clash over character, fitness.” Boston Globe. October 10, 2016.
Hillary Clinton did not engage in a dispute over her husband’s behavior in the debate and chose, as Michele Obama had advised, to take the high road.
Trump in the debate dismissed the video as being a decade old; admitted saying what was on the tape; was sorry he did it; repeated that it was a mistake; dismissed the “lewd” talk as “locker room” talk; said he was “not proud of his behavior,” seen as a partial apology; claimed this this was not what he was now; argued the entire issue was a distraction and that the campaign should concentrate on the real issues of the campaign.
With that, the debate (with occasional regressing to charges about the video and Trump’s (and Bill Clinton’s) behavior toward women and Trump’s business and tax problems) pivoted into an intensely bitter and conflictual series of assertions as to policy differences. These included: tax policy (Clinton would increase taxes and penalize the wealthiest, Trump would cut them for corporations and the well-off); health care plans (Clinton would strengthen the Affordable Care Act which she admitted had problems, Trump would revoke it); environmental and energy development; displaced workers; immigrants; violence in urban areas; Syria; national security; the Obama administration; Libya and the murder of Khadafy and the killing of four American diplomats; ISIS and terrorism; Putin and Russia and Trump’s admiration for both; support for the Iraq war (Clinton voted for it, Trump supported it early on but later denied it); the emails Clinton released which Trump claimed had undergone “acid washing” and “bleaching” (the defense of her actions was seen as one of her biggest campaign problems and she did not handle it well in the debate; and just about any other concern that surfaced during the presidential race.
Trump interrupted as he saw fit; repeatedly claimed he was not getting equal time (overall there was one minute difference between the two); continually paced, frequently standing behind Clinton as she spoke to the audience; complained that the debate was “One on three” (Clinton and the moderator versus Trump); repeatedly called Clinton a “liar” and then a “devil”; threatened to put Clinton “in jail” if elected, a threat reminiscent of a third-world dictatorship; Syria (Trump divorced himself from his vice-presidential nominee on the subject), and any number of other things.
Clinton focused on developing her stands on policy, though often distracted by Trump and exchanging mutually curt responses. Clinton also had her own problems. The fees taken from Goldman Sachs ($1.1 ml.) for speeches (she refused to release the content of the talks); and her association with Wall Street financial institutions more generally were attacked by her opponent.
Abraham Lincoln was even brought into the debate. WikiLeaks pre-debate released a selection of Clinton’s speeches both to financial institutions and other private gatherings. In one, Clinton said you sometimes have to hide your true beliefs from voters and distinguish between what is back-room negotiations and for-the-public statements. “So, you need both a public and a private position.” She later said she was referring to Abraham Lincoln and his “principled” and “strategic” approach to ending slavery. Trump was not impressed: “Now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln.” It was the kind of revelation that created the distrust Hillary Clinton encountered.
The debate ended, unexpectedly, with a question as to what one thing each admired in their opponent. Clinton singled out Trump’s children; Trump cited Clinton’s stamina (which he had been attacking throughout the campaign).
“The people of this country are furious,” Trump said at one point in the debate. “There has never been anything like this.” In these regards he was correct. In sum, instead of being content on asking for forgiveness for his behavior, Trump engaged in a fierce, highly personalized and, unlike the first debate, well-prepared attack on his opponent, her husband and her views. Clinton responded in kind and the result was a constant series of exchanges, of an intensity and anger unlike any in previous presidential debates in memory. With the debate came the assurance that Donald Trump would fight to the end. With a month to go, the election was far from over.