Presidential debate wasn’t America’s finest 90 minutes

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debates with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (Mark Ralston/Pool via AP)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debates with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (Mark Ralston/Pool via AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — It wasn’t a proud moment for democracy.

When Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump took the stage at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9 for the second presidential debate, Americans already had plenty of reasons to be disgusted with their political system.

The unearthing of a recorded 2005 conversation in which Trump described women in the most vulgar terms had touched off a national wave of revulsion among thinking women and everyone who cares about them. Trump’s ugly misogyny left many Americans — conservative, liberal, moderate and independent — wondering how a man who would speak in such demeaning terms about half the country’s population could have become a major political party’s presidential candidate.

He could have used the debate to cleanse the atmosphere by apologizing — sincerely — for his boorish behavior in regard to women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, etc.

Trump didn’t do that.

Instead, before the debate, he held a press conference featuring women who claimed former President Bill Clinton had harassed or molested them a quarter-century ago. It was an odd moment, one that smacked of desperation.

That desperation carried over into the debate.

Trump came out swinging wildly, landing some glancing blows but missing wildly for much of the night.

When he was asked — four times — about the offensive comments he’d made about women, he tried to dismiss the significance of his remarks. He called them “locker-room banter” and said he was embarrassed about them, but then tried to pivot by lurching wildly from one non-sequitur to another about terrorism and crime and economic instability.

Much of what he had to say was incoherent.

The rest of it simply wasn’t factual.

Then it got worse.

Trump acknowledged under persistent questioning that he hadn’t paid federal taxes for many years. He said he disagreed with his own running mate – Indiana Gov. Mike Pence – on foreign policy and acknowledged the mention of Pence’s name with enough ice in his voice to chill boiling water.

And then it got even worse.

Playing hard to his alt-right fanatical base, he said he’d put Clinton in jail if he were elected president.

Jailing political opponents is, of course, what leaders in totalitarian countries do.

All in all, it was a sorry, depressing spectacle.

I understand what Trump was trying to do. When he took the stage, a small army of disgusted Republicans had condemned or unendorsed his candidacy, many conservative newspapers had editorialized that he withdraw from the race and some GOP leaders reportedly were looking for ways to replace him on the ticket.

Trump needed to stop that movement before it became a death spiral.

To do that, he had to rally his base and force frightened Republican U.S. Senate and congressional candidates to calculate their chances of winning Nov. 8 without Trump’s most fervent supporters.

He wasn’t debating to beat Clinton.

He was debating to send a signal to Republican leaders that they were stuck with him.

And the GOP bigwigs better get used to that idea and fall into line.

Trump’s wasn’t an uplifting message, but he delivered it successfully. Thoughtful Republicans all over America doubtless went to bed Sunday night convinced they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

In some ways, Clinton was irrelevant to the proceedings. And that’s largely the way she behaved.

She was nowhere near as sharp as she was in the first debate. Trump’s toxicity created an opportunity for her to summon the better angels of the American nature, but she missed it.

She might have all but ignored Trump and instead used her time to begin the work of healing this mean-spirited and nasty debate will require of us. Instead, Clinton allowed herself to be drawn into rebutting Trump’s most ridiculous charges and engaging in tired and tiresome skirmishes with him.

In the end, Trump probably convinced wavering Republicans that, like a malignancy attached to a vital organ, the cure likely would be worse than the cancer. And Clinton doubtless convinced most moderates and independents that Trump isn’t an acceptable alternative regardless of how they might feel about her.

It wasn’t a proud moment for democracy.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.