The candidates mostly ignored the person and even the question and plugged in something they wanted to talk about. They never did any of the sort of emotive, bonding-with-the-questioner performance that we are urged to think of when we hear the words "town hall debate." They ran out the clock, and then one of the moderators — in the guise of a "follow-up" question — would replace the "town"person's question with something more specific.
Here's the transcript of last night's debate. I'm going to read the questions and test myself. Am I right about what I just said? (Or do you need me to talk about the fly that landed on Hillary Clinton's face or the way Trump and Hillary didn't shake hands at the beginning and did shake hands in the end? Meade wanted me to rewind and get a video of the fly's antics. I could be first with the news of the fly! Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects... don't have politics. They're very... brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. We rewound and laughed a lot, but I left it to the internet to take the pictures.)
Question 1 came from a teacher. She wanted to know if the candidates "feel" they are "modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth." Hillary, going first and setting the tone, boosted the ego of the townswoman by pronouncing her question "very good" and "important." She then proceeded to ignore the question and go into her standard line "our country really is great because we’re good." That's been her pat answer to Trump's banal "Make America Great Again." So when Trump got his turn, he knew where to go: His "whole concept" has been "to make America great again." A typical cascade of short sentences flowed out of that mental prompt, and nothing got back to the townswoman's question.
At the "follow-up" phase, Anderson Cooper brought in the grab-them-by-the-pussy tape we've all been talking about, and here we know Trump had to have a prepared answer. The answer was: 1. It "was locker room talk," 2. He's "not proud of it," 3. He apologizes to his family and to the American people, and 4. ISIS is way worse — they chop off heads! — and he's going "knock the hell out of ISIS." Cooper pins him down and gets him to deny that he's ever done "those things" that he talked about (which Cooper, like me and many others, characterizes as "sexual assault).
This was a perfect opportunity for Hillary Clinton to get back to the townswoman's question, but the townswoman was forgotten as Hillary spoke of women in general. Women women women women women women women. She says "women" 7 times... and ends with: "We will celebrate our diversity." Trump insists on speaking again — after Martha Raddatz tries to move on to a question "from online" — but he doesn't get back to the townswoman either. He begins "It’s just words, folks. It’s just words." He didn't mean his grab-them-by-the-pussy business was just words. He meant Hillary's statement was just words. But once she gets your vote, "she does nothing."
Raddatz's question "from online" is "Trump says the campaign has changed him. When did that happen?" And Raddatz loads grab-them-by-the-pussy specificity onto Jeff-from-Ohio's dull question. Trump responds with #1 and #2 of the 4-point answer he'd just given to Cooper. He skips #3 (the apology) and hops straight to #4. But this time it's not ISIS is worse. It's Bill Clinton is worse — "far worse." I wonder if Raddatz regretted repeating the question he'd already answered. Trump says he only spoke words, but Bill Clinton did actions: "There’s never been anybody in the history politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women." And: "Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously." And he's got 4 of those women here tonight. (He said 4, but only 3 were accusers of Bill Clinton. The 4th one is connected only to Hillary, who has laughed in the context of describing her defense of the man who raped that woman when she was 12 years old.)
Hillary reeled out a list of Trump sins. It was a way to say — in answer to Jeff from Ohio — that Trump has not changed. When she ends by saying Trump owes President Obama an apology for the "racist lie" of saying he wasn't born in America, Trump responds that she owes the apology because her campaign started it. He goes on to reel out his list of her sins. It gets very intense, and Trump threatens to get "a special prosecutor" after her. Clinton tries laughing off how hard it is to fact-check on the fly. (Ugh! I need another expression. I can't say "on the fly" in this post. The fly was on her, so she can't be "on the fly.") She refers us to her website. She actually says the URL. Who says URLs anymore? She does! Then she ends with a line that gives Trump the joke of the night:
CLINTON: Last time at the first debate, we had millions of people fact checking, so I expect we’ll have millions more fact checking, because, you know, it is — it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.It's gone on so long without a second question from the poor townsfolk stuck in the chairs under the scrutiny of 100 million TV viewers. But it's not time for them yet. It's time for Raddatz to do a "follow-up." She asks Clinton about the email: Wasn't she "extremely careless"? Of course, that gets the canned answer we've heard time and again from Clinton. It was "a mistake" and she's sorry. Raddatz didn't mention the destruction of 33,000 emails, but Trump does: "You think it was fine to delete 33,000 e-mails? I don’t think so.... and this is after getting a subpoena from the United States Congress." Cooper and Raddatz try to cut Trump off but he barrels on: "If you did that in the private sector, you’d be put in jail, let alone after getting a subpoena from the United States Congress."
TRUMP: Because you’d be in jail.
Cooper gives Clinton a chance to respond, and Trump doesn't refrain from interrupting:
CLINTON: Look, it’s just not true. And so please, go to...That's major interrupting — short and sharply satirical. It takes no real time, but it throws the other person off and it's what we remember.
TRUMP: Oh, you didn’t delete them?
COOPER: Allow her to respond, please.
CLINTON: It was personal e-mails, not official.
TRUMP: Oh, 33,000? Yeah.
CLINTON: Not — well, we turned over 35,000, so...
TRUMP: Oh, yeah. What about the other 15,000?
COOPER: Please allow her to respond. She didn’t talk while you talked.
CLINTON: Yes, that’s true, I didn’t.
TRUMP: Because you have nothing to say.
CLINTON: I didn’t in the first debate, and I’m going to try not to in this debate, because I’d like to get to the questions that the people have brought here tonight to talk to us about.
TRUMP: Get off this question.
Finally, we get to another townsperson. Trump mistakenly thinks he should go first, apparently because the first question from a townsperson went to Clinton, and this is only the second townsperson. But Trump had the question "from online," so Clinton is, we're told, entitled once again to be the first to respond to a flesh-and-blood person. At this point, the question is known — what will you about the crazy system that is Obamacare? (I'm paraphrasing, importing a Bill Clintonism.) Clinton humorously accedes to what now looks rude: "If he wants to start, he can start." Trump backs off: "No, I’m a gentlemen, Hillary. Go ahead."
Hillary gives a long wonkish answer devoid of any personal reaching out to the townsman who asked the question. Trump is a tad more personal in that he declares it "such a great question." Cooper's follow-up reminds Hillary that Bill Clinton called Obamacare "the craziest thing in the world." Does she agree with her husband or not? She says: "No, I mean, he clarified what he meant. And it’s very clear." Oh? Is it? I don't remember how Bill clarified. I think I mentally checked out until the next question.
It's a townswoman who self-identifies as a Muslim. This is the question that stood out to me as the classic town-hall type question, the people-like-me question. She says what she is. She points at a problem: Islamophobia. And she asks: What will you do to help people like me? The candidate can simply address the problem or he or she can sidle up to the townsperson and create a Bill-Clinton-feel-your-pain moment. Trump went first and he didn't do it. Hillary therefore had a chance, but she didn't do it either. She could have talked to the woman and said her name. She has a name: It's Gorbah Hamed. But Hillary name-dropped George Washington and — wha? — Muhammad Ali:
"And we’ve had many successful Muslims. We just lost a particular well-known one with Muhammad Ali."Forget it, townslady. You're not a celebrity. After days of hearing Trump's old brag about how because he's a star, he can do anything, you'd think Hillary would see the reason to demonstrate valuing the little people, the townsfolk. Everyone matters. Instead, Hillary gives us this out-of-the-blue invocation of Muhammad Ali. He was Muslim. There are some famous Muslims, Muslims we care about. Huh?!
Can we get another townsperson? No. A huge chunk of time is consumed with follow-ups — about the "Muslim ban"/"extreme vetting," about increasing the intake of refugees — and candidate-injected issues — Trump's purported opposition to the war in Iraq, about drugs pouring through the "southern border" — and another question "from online" — about Hillary's paid speeches. That last thing gives Hillary a chance to name-drop another great President, President Abraham Lincoln:
As I recall, that [statement about having a public and private position on certain issues] was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called “Lincoln.” It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic.The name-dropping of a great old President is, once again, accompanied by the name of a modern-day celebrity. Washington got Ali. Lincoln gets Spielberg. Trump hits back: "Now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln." I love the show-biz phrase "late, great." It seems jocose used to describe someone who died a century and a half ago. And there is laughter in the hall. Trump plays it up:
OK, Honest Abe, Honest Abe never lied. That’s the good thing. That’s the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you. That’s a big, big difference. We’re talking about some difference.We are now so far into the debate — maybe half way — and finally we hear from a fourth townsperson, the
It's Clinton's turn, and she's supposed to name a specific tax provision she'd change. She mocks Trump: "he lives in an alternative reality." She accuses him of planning to help himself and his friends: "Donald always takes care of Donald and people like Donald." But does Clinton not take care of herself and her friends? Does she ever cite a specific provision she'll change? She says she won't raise taxes on people who make less than $250,000 a year. She says she once voted to change a loophole. But what specific provision will she change?
I want to have a tax on people who are making a million dollars. It’s called the Buffett rule. Yes, Warren Buffett is the one who’s gone out and said somebody like him should not be paying a lower tax rate than his secretary. I want to have a surcharge on incomes above $5 million. We have to make up for lost times....Lost times?
Cooper follows up, extracting from Trump the admission that he did carry forward the $916 million loss in 1995 to later years, as the tax law provides for.
Of course I do. Of course I do. And so do all of her donors, or most of her donors. I know many of her donors. Her donors took massive tax write-offs.There's no discussion of changing that particular tax provision (because it makes so much sense, but acting like it doesn't works on some people). Anyway, Cooper tries to get Trump to say how many years of income went tax free because of that huge 1995 loss, and Trump declines. He veers suddenly into Hillary's responsibility for the rise of ISIS and ends with a sarcastic: "Congratulations. Great job." Hillary shrugs it off: "Well, here we go again." She goes into a cascade of issues.
Can we get another townsperson? We've only had 4. No. It's another online person. Isn't the crisis in Syria "a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?" Hillary doesn't engage on the history and emotion. She plugs in her Syria policy discussion. Trump's response gets Clinton to break her non-interruption policy:
TRUMP: First of all, she was there as secretary of state with the so-called line in the sand, which...Notice: Trump bypassed the idea of showing empathy over something that was compared to the Holocaust. He went straight to blaming Hillary. Here's PolitiFact fact-checking: "Clinton says she was gone for the 'red line' in Syria incident... We rate her claim Mostly False."
CLINTON: No, I wasn’t. I was gone. I hate to interrupt you, but at some point...
TRUMP: OK. But you were in contact — excuse me. You were...
CLINTON: At some point, we need to do some fact-checking here.
The Syria discussion goes on a long time, but finally it ends, and — lo and behold — a townsperson gets called on. The man — speaking of name-dropping ex-Presidents — is named James Carter. He asks an utterly sentimental, softball question: "Do you believe you can be a devoted president to all the people in the United States?"
It's Trump's turn, and he doesn't warm up to Carter. He goes on the attack against Clinton. She called millions of people "deplorable" and "irredeemable." And:
Let me tell you, if she’s president of the United States, nothing’s going to happen. It’s just going to be talk. And all of her friends, the taxes we were talking about, and I would just get it by osmosis. She’s not doing any me favors. But by doing all the others’ favors, she’s doing me favors.Osmosis, eh? I had to think about that. He's saying that personally, financially, he'd be better off with her as President, because the people she's going to favor — her friends — are like him, so he'd benefit along with them.
Hillary defends her 30 years of public service. It wasn't "nothing" (as Trump has said repeatedly). She can't get any love and compassion to ooze out... to osmose.... It's a steely cold battle of wills.
Cooper follows up by confronting her with her words "deplorables, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic." She says that she said she was sorry. How many times does she have to tell you she's sorry? Trump gets an opportunity to drive it home:
And when she said deplorables, she meant it. And when she said irredeemable, they’re irredeemable, you didn’t mention that...but when she said they’re irredeemable, to me that might have been even worse.... She’s got tremendous — she’s got tremendous hatred.So Cooper badgered Trump about tweeting from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. Isn't that undisciplined? (This is supposed to be following up the townsman's question about being a "devoted president" to everyone.)
Trump seizes upon the 3 a.m. prompt to talk about the 3 a.m. call from Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi — " 600 requests for help." Cooper tries to track him onto the "discipline of a good leader," and Trump eventually gets around to Twitter: "It is a very effective form of communication. I’m not un-proud of it, to be honest with you."
Can we hear from a townsperson at long last? Yes! Finally a 6th component of the backdrop gets to come alive and ask a question. It's the old who-will-you-put-on-the-Supreme-Court question. Neither candidate seems even to look for a way to get personal with the townsman. There's the usual blah-blah-blah. Trump likes Scalia. Hillary wants you to know she "respect[s]" the Second Amendment."
And then — miracle! — there are no follow-ups as the moderators wedge in one more question from a townsperson... Ken Bone. It's the energy-policy question: How will you get us everything we need without hurting anything we care about? (I'm paraphrasing.) Trump throws Bone a bone: it's "a great question." But there's no asking Bone how he may have personally suffered or any of that old-timey "town hall" flummery. Clinton picks up on the policy issues with no attention at all to Bone the Man.
It seems that the time should be up, but the moderators, again forgoing follow-up, call on one more townsperson. I'll bet this guy was stunned. Just when he was thinking he was about to be set free, his button was pushed, and he had to pop up and perform for the millions. You can tell the moderators had this guy saved for the denouement: The townsman invites each candidate to say "one positive thing" about the other.
Raddatz asks Trump to go first, but Clinton barges in:
Well, I certainly will, because I think that’s a very fair and important question.She'll go first because the question is "very fair and important." Not because the townsman is anyone to embrace and reach out to and warm up to and grab by the... heart. But because he asked a decent question. The answer is:
Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald....Donald goes second, and imagine if he'd gone first and he'd given the offspring answer. It would have seemed sexist. The first thing you think of that's good about a woman is her children? But the woman said it about the man, and this man isn't going to copy and return the same compliment. He said what I — when I heard the question — predicted they'd both say: My opponent is a fighter.
She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that.... She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for.... But she does fight hard... And I consider that to be a very good trait.And that's the end. I'd like to thank you for being here with me this morning as I tested my impression of what happened last night — that a town hall isn't what it's supposed to be. What it's supposed to be is — I'll use the word again — flummery. I'd dispense with the backdrop of inert, uncomfortable human beings and their stilted questions. There is no town. We're not in Iowa and New Hampshire anymore. Spare us the inane scenery. We don't need to pretend to return to a bygone era — to "lost times." And I don't like my bygone era spiked with questions from the internet — those social media layabouts who get to intrude their questions in front of the townsfolk who endured the ordeal of sitting on little chairs behaving themselves for 90 minutes. Raddatz and Cooper wanted to ask tough questions and manage a proper grilling. Set them free to do just that with a normal moderated debate. Don't make me feel they're being insufficiently benevolent to the "townspeople" — all in the hope that the candidates might seize an opportunity to show some stunning compassion to an ordinary American. It didn't happen last night, and the candidates don't seem to think they even need to try to do that anymore.
Can we stop trying to return to the "lost times" of 1992?
That happened that one time, and, looking back, it doesn't seem that significant. We've grown up since then. That looks as old-timey as the Norman Rockwell image of a town hall the bogus town hall debates are meant to evoke:
By the way, is that guy a basket-of-deplorables type? Look closely. I suspect they all are.