Vatz: Much substance on both sides; close debate victory for Trump

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By Richard E. Vatz


Never has a presidential debate opened to such controversy as the second 2016 Washington University Town Hall clash in St.Louis between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Donald Trump came off a weekend reeling from revelations of a 2005 tape in which he offensively bragged of his sexual prowess and success with women, including married women, in vile language.

There were also the revelations by WikiLeaks that in a speech to the National Multi-Housing Council, Clinton spoke of politicians necessarily having “both a public and private position” and she called supporters of Bernie Sanders a “bucket of losers,” and she called for “open borders.”

Stunningly, before the debate, Trump staged a news conference sporting accusers of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s alleged sexual predatory behaviors and legal threats against the women respectively.

Hillary brought up Trump’s treatment of women, specifically the former Miss Universe, in the last debate. Both principals have contributed to the lack of discussion of domestic and foreign policy issues in this campaign.

More important, would these matters mean another debate with no emphasis on such important matters?  In addition, would Trump’s remarks and, now, accusations through surrogates, overwhelm coverage to the point that WikiLeaks’ new information would not even be discussed, as they have been largely ignored by the establishment press.

The debate

The moderators were CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz.  Both have progressive credentials, but both are able and have asked Democrats tough questions.

There was a rough fairness in this debate, although Trump consistently complained about moderator bias, and the moderators are to be complimented for forging a debate that was roughly fair and filled with substance, at least in the final two thirds.

The first half hour was filled with personal attacks and the first time Trump has brought up in debate Bill Clinton’s dalliances and Hillary’s attacks on Bill’s alleged victims.  He apologized without much qualification and accused Hillary of suborning Bill’s behavior and laughing at a 12 year-old whose rapist she managed to get acquitted.  Hillary did not respond, and that may have been wise if she had no answer, but an argument that is not opposed is often an argument sustained.

Domestic and foreign issues

The last hour-plus was saturated with domestic and foreign policy matters — most of which were controlled by Trump to his advantage — that have been neglected heretofore in the presidential debates, certainly, and perhaps in the campaign: the growth of ISIS; WikiLeaks’ revealing of Hillary’s statements on her claiming there is a difference between private and public rhetoric and her e-mails along with his threat to, as president, have her imprisoned because her illegal behavior was so compelling; her claims, for example, of not knowing that “c” meant “confidential” in e-mails; misrepresentations by Hillary on Obamacare, such as the increases on premiums and costs; the responsibility for the threat of ISIS and what the United States must do about it — this also represented a flat out disagreement between Trump and Mike Pence, who argued that we should attack Syria President Assad’s military.

In addition tax policy was discussed with Trump’s opposing Clinton’s tax position, claiming that such policy hurt the growth of the economy and employment.

Hillary, to her advantage, brought up Donald’s proud avoidance of taxes, and he reiterated that the laws allowed such, and that only he could change them. She also brought up some of the unanswerable criticisms of Trump, such as his mocking of a disabled reporter and his still unrevealed tax returns.

But she gave insufficient substantive response to his unrelenting accusations.

The nominees did not shake hands at the outset — how could they after Trump’s press conference with Clinton accusers?  They did shake hands at the end, perhaps made possible by the last questions which allowed Hillary to compliment Trump on his children and Trump to compliment Hillary on her toughness. “She’s not a quitter,” he said.

Debate win to Trump, as Hillary played too much prevent defense — not completely, but more than she should have.

Good substantive debate for the most part: a little messy, but that’s what good debates are sometimes.  Trump on points but not clear it would be sufficient to transform the election.

Professor Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University and is author of “The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion; the Agenda-Spin Model”