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Mud Wrestling By Trump & Clinton in Second Presidential Debate

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton continued to circle back to their talking points in the second debate with the election a month away.

All commentators agree on one fact in this generally fact-free election cycle: Donald J. Trump has controlled the terms of the debates from the day he announced his run for president. One outrageous proposition after another from him sucked all the oxygen out of any attempt to raise realistic policy in the Republican primary.

Those who thought Trump would have trouble setting the agenda when the Democrats nominated a notorious policy nerd have so far nothing to show for their speculation. Trump has been and remains the only issue in this election, and any policy even mentioned gets mentioned in relation to Trump.

Even valid attacks on Clinton have been Trumped, buried in a blizzard of untruths. Everybody suspected Clinton would not release transcripts of her high-dollar Wall Street speeches because she was letting those who paid her to pipe call the tune. But Trump is more interested in claiming she would “repeal the Second Amendment,” which is both untrue and not within the powers of a POTUS, even if it were true.

Clinton compromised with Bernie Sanders on his “free college for all” proposal by adding a means test. It’s a provocative idea to address the real problem of runaway higher education costs, but the debate it should have provoked has been impossible with Trump casting doubt on whether the U.S. will defend NATO allies after they stepped up to defend us in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Clinton won the first debate. The second one last night was a town hall format, which was supposed to mean that the audience got to set the agenda. Still, going into the second debate, Trump once more sucked up all the political oxygen and made himself the issue.

After blaming his loss of the first debate on a bad microphone (and darkly suggesting sabotage), this debate featured a microphone that worked too well for his taste back in 2005. Trump was miked-up for a cameo appearance on a soap opera when he created his very own soap opera with comments lewd enough to make a teenager blush and leave grown people scratching their heads.

Republican pols, particularly those running for re-election, have been rats leaving a sinking ship since that tape was released, but what little polling has come in since then suggests that Trump’s base is loyal and will blame the rats rather than the guy who blew holes in the hull below the water line.

The growing GOP chorus for The Donald to hand over the nomination to Mike Pence seems unrealistic. Absentee ballots for GIs overseas are in the mail and some states have begun early voting.

A new Wikileaks data dump reported an alleged transcript of a Clinton speech behind closed doors that does not match her public positions on banking regulation and trade agreements. That would be big trouble if Trump were not, again, the center of attention.

Within two hours of the debate, there was another remarkable development. The Trump campaign invited the pool reporters to “observe a debate prep session.” It was already known that Trump had been coerced into prepping for the second debate in a more conventional manner. Or that had been leaked.

The press pool was ushered into a conference room where Trump, looking angry, was seated at the sort of desk you use for a group press conference. Trump was in the middle. Seated around him were Paula Jones, Kathleen Shelton, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey. All but Shelton have accused Hillary’s husband, Bill Clinton, of sexual misconduct.

The talking heads speculated this telegraphed that Trump would “go nuclear” on Hillary Clinton’s reactions to those claims back when they were first aired, decades ago. All of these claims have been aired out many times before, but many voters were not born at the time.

The first time around, Hillary did not defend Bill but rather defended her marriage. Voters declined to hold that against her. Ironically, the TV stations were already running tape of Trump calling Paula Jones “a loser” and opining that she lied about Bill Clinton.

Kathleen Shelton is the one person with a story not related to Bill Clinton. She was raped at 12 years old and Hillary Clinton was court appointed to represent the rapist.

Shelton to this day does not understand that a lawyer is ethically required to provide a vigorous defense without regard to the lawyer’s personal opinion. She is upset about a pleading Clinton signed to get a court-ordered mental evaluation and about Clinton’s success in a motion to suppress forensic evidence.

Clinton’s famous “laughter” about the case was her memory that her client passed a polygraph in spite of her opinion he was guilty, destroying any faith she might otherwise have had in polygraphs.

Shelton’s complaints have not been raised as political issues because, presumably, Clinton’s other opponents were not willing to attack the Sixth Amendment and the rules of legal ethics that flow from it.

Trump’s interference in the Central Park Five case, where he still demands the death penalty despite DNA exonerations, displays his opinion of the legal process. As a lawyer who has been tasked by courts to represent guilty people, I will be the first to admit that putting the Sixth Amendment on trial threatens me personally.

The Bill of Rights confers a right to counsel—not a right to counsel who believes in your innocence. A lawyer’s worst nightmare would be to knowingly slack off in a criminal defense of a guilty defendant only to be shown wrong about guilt. It’s not the defense lawyer’s role to make that call, and even guilty defendants can in our system require the government to follow its own rules.

The stakes in attacking the Sixth Amendment for political purposes are much higher than in the question what a wronged wife should say in defense of her guilty husband.

The vibe going into last night’s debate was unlike what I’ve ever seen. It felt ugly. It did nothing to dispel that – when the candidates entered and did not shake hands.

The first question went directly to the ugly problem. What do the candidates have to say about the problem of letting children watch these debates in light of all the nastiness?

Clinton said we are stronger together.

Trump said we need to make America great again.

Those “answers” are a great microcosm of the whole debate. Hurl an insult. Pivot to talking points. Rinse and repeat. Both sides played small ball. As usual, Clinton gets judged more harshly because she labors under the burden of presumed sanity, a burden cast off by Trump during the primaries.

Trump came prepared this time, but his sniffles are still there and they are intrusive enough to bring up that health issue that comes and goes on both sides.

Clinton came resolved not to mud wrestle, but it was hard to avoid.

Both candidates circled back repeatedly to their talking points, and it’s now a month until the election—late enough that repeating talking points is no longer reportage, and I will try to avoid it.

The 800-pound gorilla of the Trump tape came up early, and Trump dismissed it as “locker room talk.” Anderson Cooper pointed out correctly that he was “locker room” talking about sexual assault and pressed to know if Trump had assaulted women. After much prodding by Cooper, Trump flatly denied that his statements on the tape were true.

He may have gone a step too far when he dismissed unwanted groping of women in comparison to the torture tapes ISIS flaunts.

When asked if he has changed since he was 59 years old—when the tape was made—he unloaded on the Clintons. He said Bill Clinton was abusive to women as if Bill Clinton were running for POTUS.

He accused Hillary Clinton of “laughing at the girl who was raped,” which was manifestly not true.

He claimed that Bill Clinton “had to pay an $850,000 fine to Paula Jones,” referring to the nuisance level settlement of her civil suit as if it were a criminal act.

He said of Bernie Sanders, “I was surprised to see him sign on with the devil,” which translates in Trumpland to “endorse Hillary Clinton.”

In the ultimate descent into banana republic politics, Trump promised to appoint a special prosecutor and put his political opponent in jail if he wins.

A question on Obamacare elicited Clinton’s agreement that the law needs tweaking to rein in costs.

Trump brought up the Republican bromide of disarming state regulators, a.k.a., “allow insurance sales across state lines.” He promised, “We are going to have so much competition.”

He said he wanted to “block grant Medicaid to the states,” which is already an option, and in a remark that will excite some fact checkers, he called the Canadian health care system “catastrophic.”

A Muslim woman asked what could be done about Islamophobia?

Trump agreed it’s “a shame” and suggested that Muslims need to report on other Muslims and the POTUS needs to denounce “radical Islamic terror.”

Trump was not really responsive to the question; Clinton’s talking points were, but they were still talking points and I will not recycle them.

At one point, Trump made news by admitting that he took the years of deductions to avoiding paying any income tax. At two other points, he claimed to have paid “hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.”

Trump made news again when he flatly disagreed with his running mate, who wants to consider using military force against Bashar al-Assad. Trump said that Assad’s government, Russia, and Iran are all fighting ISIS and we should leave them alone no matter what it costs Syrian civilians.

Asked again about the bad feelings in the campaign, Trump said, “We have a divided nation because of people like her” and claimed she has “tremendous hatred” in her heart.

As evidence that he is a uniter, “Between Twitter and Facebook, I have 25 million people.”

The last town hall questioner said something that gave a lot of onlookers, this one included, a thrill. “Can each of you say one positive thing about your opponent?”

After the audience got done with their ground-rule-violating round of applause:

Clinton said that Trump’s children are so impressive as human beings that they speak well of him.

Trump said of Clinton that she does not quit. When knocked down, she gets right up and keeps fighting and he had to admit to admiring that.

With that ending, the candidates shook hands for the first time of the evening.