WASHINGTON – A spectacularly nasty U.S. presidential debate began with the participants refusing to shake hands and culminated in an unprecedented threat from one candidate to throw the other in prison.
The tone was set from the start.
Up in the stands were several women who’d accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, and in one case an alleged rape in 1978. They’d been invited there by Donald Trump. He and Hillary Clinton avoided shaking hands when they arrived on stage.
Trump then went after his opponent for deleting work-related emails. He declared he would appoint a special prosecutor to examine whether she should be charged for destroying potential evidence. Clinton retorted by expressing relief that someone with his impulses didn’t control law-enforcement.
Trump replied with a retort rarely heard in an advanced democracy: “Because you’d be in jail,” he said.
It was an especially fierce moment in a debate full of them.
Trump was asked about an old video where he’s heard bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without permission. He apologized, and changed the subject: “Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker-room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS.”
Moving on from that segue, he referred to the women in the audience: Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, and a rape victim in a case where Clinton was the lawyer for the accused.
“Bill Clinton was abusive to women,” he said. He added that his opponent worked to silence those women: “Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
A taste of the online reaction came from the former chair of the Republican party. Michael Steele tweeted a photo of a nuclear mushroom cloud with the caption: “(Republican party) at this moment.”
A number of prominent Republicans have stampeded away from Trump, as he declines in the polls and following the release of his vulgar comments about women. Dozens of lawmakers have said they won’t vote for him. There are also numerous unconfirmed reports that the party is pulling money and resources from his campaign, and steering it toward congressional races.
Clinton referred to that: “I know you’re into big diversion tonight — anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it’s exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you.”
Clinton said her opponent was beneath his own party.
“You know, with prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them on politics, policies, principles, but I never questioned their fitness to serve,” she said.
“Donald Trump is different.”
There were also some eye-raising moments during discussions of policy.
Trump accused his opponent of secretly plotting to implement Canadian-style, single-payer health care: “(That) would be a disaster, somewhat similar to Canada. And if you haven’t noticed the Canadians, when they need a big operation, when something happens, they come into the United States in many cases because their system is so slow. It’s catastrophic in certain ways.”
That might have surprised the Trump of a few years ago — when he contemplated a run for president and called for Canadian-style single-payer health care.
It was also pointed out to Trump that his position on Syria is vastly different than his running mate’s. In his televised debate, Mike Pence threatened to attack the Assad regime for working with Russians to kill civilians.
Trump dismissed the idea of attacking Assad. He said the U.S. interest in that country is limited to fighting ISIS. Trump offered a surprising answer when asked why the Republican ticket was split on such a critical question.
“He and I haven’t spoken,” Trump said.
“And I disagree.”
The debate ended on a slightly less vicious note.
An audience member asked them to say something nice about each other. Clinton extolled his children. He accepted the compliment, and retorted that he admired his opponent’s tenacity.
They shook hands on the way out.
Cable-news pundits afterwards mainly agreed Trump had improved since a weak first debate. A focus group on Fox showed him winning undecided voters. Yet the first two polls of debate-watchers suggested most thought Clinton won: YouGov by a margin of five per cent, and CNN by 23 per cent.