Spotted lily

Spotted lily

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Two Debates and a Video: More Steps on the GOP's Path to Disaster

The last couple of weeks have been a strange but eventful stretch for the 2016 presidential campaign, and we seem to have reached yet another new low for the GOP.  Recent developments, even some that many may have seen as at least somewhat positive, have only made me sadder about the state of conservatism and the Republican party.

It seems like a long time ago, but the Vice Presidential debate took place less than two weeks ago.  It appeared that Mike Pence was widely thought to have “won.”  I would agree that he probably came across as more personable and less annoying than his opponent, largely because he engaged in fewer interruptions than Tim Kaine.  Pence also had some success putting Kaine on the defensive about various aspects of Hillary Clinton’s record and platform, and he did express at least some more traditional conservative views, which have been sorely lacking in this general election campaign.  Yet, I can’t actually praise Mike Pence’s performance, because so much of what he said did not reflect reality.  For one thing, most of the more typically Republican things that Pence said don’t match up with the positions Trump has taken, so it might be rather misleading to suggest to viewers that they would be the policies supported by a Trump administration.  Kaine frequently brought up various controversial Trump comments or proposals, saying he couldn’t believe Pence would defend them.  It’s understandable that Pence often chose to instead change the subject to something he’d rather discuss, but on multiple occasions he opted to just deny that Trump had actually made the statements or suggestions, even when they were quite public and well-documented from speeches, interviews, campaign events, etc.  How dare anyone suggest that Trump and his team have said positive things about Vladimir Putin?  Of course Trump knew about Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine and was actually asserting that such a thing wouldn’t happen again with Trump in charge.  There were plenty of other examples, as well, and Pence’s indignation as he tried to rewrite the history of this campaign was extremely exasperating.  Also, when asked to explain what should be done to better handle various troubling international security issues, Pence just said that a stronger America would be the answer, following his running mate’s lead of making broad promises without providing specifics about how they might be accomplished.  So, if Pence may have helped his ticket to some degree during the debate, he did so in large part by being vague, evasive, and either delusional or dishonest, reflecting the unfortunate spread of such tactics and characteristics from the nominee to others in the GOP.

Of course, any discussion of the VP debate faded into the background a couple of days later when the video of Donald Trump’s vulgar comments behind the scenes of an Access Hollywood appearance several years ago was released.  I can’t say that I was particularly surprised when I head about it, because I’ve been convinced for a long time that Trump is a man of exceedingly low character.  The reactions of various others to the tape were interesting, though.  There seemed to be quite a few commentators, even some who’ve been friendly to Trump, who felt that this new controversy had rendered him unelectable, but I wondered why they assumed this to be the case and thought we’d need to wait to see the impact.  It is certainly difficult to imagine past presidential candidates remaining viable after something like this, but voters have been letting Trump get away with outrageous things that they would never condone in other politicians throughout this campaign.  And, true to form, a great many of Trump’s supporters made it clear that they would be sticking with, or even defending, him in this case, as well.  Now, over a week later, it appears that even this video did not deliver a fatal blow to Donald Trump’s candidacy, but it did hurt him in the polls and even led quite a few Republicans to renounce support for him.  It struck me as particularly unfortunate that this episode might actually wind up spelling defeat for some of these other politicians instead of Trump, because it seems likely many of Trump’s overzealously devoted fans will refuse to vote for Republicans who have unendorsed or otherwise not supported Trump.  This might make the difference in competitive House and Senate races, and it’s another sad development that Republicans may now lose because they don’t want to be associated with blatantly immoral speech.

After the Access Hollywood comments became public, some conservatives even asked Donald Trump to step aside from the campaign and let someone else take over.  That’s a scenario I’d love to see, but, of course, Trump made clear that he wasn’t going anywhere.  Throughout last weekend, though, I did hold out hope that he might at least decide to skip Sunday’s debate, so that I would be spared from watching what promised to be an ugly spectacle.  Alas, he did show up, and, as expected, the debate was a pretty unpleasant event.  Naturally, Donald Trump and his fans thought that he won the debate.  I didn’t come to that conclusion, and, contrary to what The Donald has been claiming, plenty of poll results agree with me.  However, I will say that Trump did make much more of an effort this time to keep the focus on his preferred topics and talking points, and this made him seem somewhat less unprepared and out of place.  I still think that Donald Trump’s performance was very problematic and would have been considered disastrous for other candidates.  Trump once again was repeatedly sniffling loudly into the microphone, which is a small thing, but it seems notable from someone who has made a big deal of questioning his opponent’s health.  He also spent much of the time while Hillary Clinton was talking wandering around the stage or hovering behind her.  I don’t know if he was trying to be distracting or intimidating or if he just felt bored and restless, but I wouldn’t think this behavior would come across well to members of the general viewing public.  While Trump did manage to occasionally make a point about an actual policy issue, he still seems very out of his depth on matters of substance.  For example, listing some of the problems with Obamacare was a good start, but Trump still was very short on ideas of his own for a better policy, other than the elimination of “lines around the states” that we heard about in a memorable exchange with Marco Rubio during a primary debate.  Trump’s answers regarding foreign policy, exemplified on Sunday by his statements about Russia and the situation in Syria, also remain troubling.  He seems to almost reflexively defend Russia and to be unable to see that they and Iran are not on an anti-ISIS mission in Syria.  The controversy regarding Trump’s videotaped comments about women was obviously going to come up during the debate.  Trump may have started out by saying that he wasn’t proud of the things he’d said and was apologizing for them, but he also tried to immediately pivot to the idea that it was much more important to talk about terrorism and security.  Of course these are crucial topics, but there would be plenty of chances to talk about them in other segments of the debate.  In follow-up questions, moderator Anderson Cooper had to ask Trump three times whether he had actually done the things he’d described in his conversation with Billy Bush before Trump finally briefly said that he had not and again tried to change the subject.  Some have described Cooper’s questions as “a trap,” but I think they were entirely fair and reasonable.  Before and during the debate, Trump had been trying to downplay the statements in the video as just “locker room talk,” but this ignores the fact that it was talk in which Trump was saying that he had repeatedly engaged in unacceptable and abusive behavior.  Cooper was trying to get Trump to address this important issue, and he needed to be persistent because of Trump’s evasiveness.  To me, Trump’s overall response to this controversy has not been one that really conveys contrition or is likely to convince neutral observers that Trump really does, as he claims, respect women.

I’m sure that Trump’s fans loved the way he aggressively attacked Hillary Clinton and criticized the moderators in this debate, as well as his pre-debate press-conference with some of the women who’ve accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, but I don’t know that these tactics will help him with the general public at large.  Trump said that Hillary would be in jail if he were president, referred to her as the devil, and said that she has “tremendous hate in her heart.”  (I’m not sure exactly where Donald Trump acquired the ability to discern what is in another person’s heart or whether he plans to use this skill in evaluating foreign leaders, potential advisors, cabinet members, etc.  Perhaps that’s a question for the next debate.)  To me, all of this rhetoric goes too far and is much more personally hostile than we’d expect from a candidate on stage with an opponent.  As a result, voters might dismiss Trump’s harsh criticisms as over-the-top rhetoric and could even come away with a more unfavorable opinion of Trump, not Clinton.  Trump complained about the moderators, saying that they were not giving him as much time to speak and making the debate “3 against 1” in Clinton’s favor.  While it might be safe to assume that the moderators are not fond of Trump, I’d say his criticisms were quite exaggerated.  The moderators did ask both candidates about matters they’d probably prefer to avoid and tried to keep both of them within time limits.  Especially since Trump criticized the moderating team for failing to bring up Hillary’s e-mails right after Martha Raddatz had asked her a question about that topic, many people may see his behavior as a whiny overreaction.

Now, Hillary Clinton did not have a fantastic night, either.  She seemed to want to deal with most of the things Trump threw at her by dismissing or ignoring them, and, while that might be the right idea generally, leaving some of these things unanswered might allow them to do more damage.  Time spent discussing her private e-mail server, her negative comments about some of Trump’s supporters, and the scandals of her husband’s presidency does not help her cause.  Clinton is certainly not my ideal candidate, so I naturally found plenty to disagree with in her answers, perhaps most notably her description of the considerations she’d use in choosing Supreme Court justices.  Her criteria didn’t seem to include knowledge of and faithfulness to the law and the Constitution, and she recited quite a list of liberal views she hopes the Court will either uphold or enact.  Still, I thought that she held her own during the debate, tried to connect with the audience members posing questions, and, overall, probably came across as a prepared and fairly reasonable candidate, especially in comparison to the still erratic and unconventional Trump.

There apparently can never be enough bizarre happenings in politics this year, and the week after the debate was a real doozy.  Several women came forward to allege that Donald Trump had, in fact, accosted them in the ways he described in his “locker room talk.”  He denied the accusations, but for some reason he also thought it was a good idea to call these women names and belittle their appearance, even though he’s been claiming that Hillary Clinton mistreated her husband’s accusers and using that as an indictment against her.  Despite all of the new scandalous allegations, Trump has still retained a great deal of his support, including from some (though not all) religious conservative leaders.  The way they’ve chosen to defend so many things that go against the values and behavioral standards they have long professed in order to justify their support of Trump is almost hard to believe.  Most Republican politicians are also still backing Trump to varying degrees, even if they don’t really want to talk about it.  House Speaker Paul Ryan told his fellow congressmen that he won’t campaign with or defend Donald Trump from now on, but he did not take back his endorsement of the GOP nominee.  Even so, Trump was not pleased, and he spent some time lashing out at Ryan, John McCain, and other Republicans he considers disloyal to him.  Some in Trump’s campaign even openly suggested that many of his supporters might vote only for him, not for other Republicans running for lower offices, in November, showing how little they truly care about the “team” or any real chance to enact any of their supposed agenda in Congress.  Trump also stated that, because he doesn’t  think he is getting sufficient support from the party, he now will feel free to toss off the “shackles’ and pursue his campaign to Make America Great Again the way he really wants.  Wow.  If Trump was restraining himself up to this point in the campaign, we should all be afraid of what might come next!  To sum everything up:  this whole political situation is a huge mess for Republicans, and speculation about the upcoming election results is a cause for apprehension.  Will Donald Trump deservedly lose, perhaps by a lot?  Will other Republicans, or even the whole party, be damaged by his takeover of the GOP and all that has gone on because of it this election cycle?  I guess we’ll find out some of the answers in a few weeks, but things look pretty bleak for conservatism and the Republican party right now.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Thoughts on the First Clinton/Trump Debate

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last Monday night was highly anticipated and watched by a very large number of viewers.  Many commentators have already weighed in with their opinions about how things went for the participants and what impact the event might have, but I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own.

After any political debate, I suppose that it’s understandable for people to want to discuss who “won,’ since we tend to focus on so many things as competitions and the eventual election will have a victor.  Determining the “winner” of a debate is not necessarily a straightforward proposition for multiple reasons.  Sometimes both candidates might objectively perform at about the same level, and supporters of each side will almost always claim that their guy or girl won,  no matter what happened.  Different observers also will use a variety of criteria to judge debate performances, as well.  Unfortunately, it seems to me that an evaluation of which candidate had the most memorable line or two, especially if it is critical of the opponent, often gets the most attention in deeming who had the most successful evening.  It would be nice if debates could be seen predominantly  as forums for the candidates to inform potential voters about their views on the issues instead, so that the person doing the best job of articulating sound policies would get the most credit, but that doesn’t seem likely to be the case anytime soon.

Ever since Donald Trump appeared in the first Republican primary debate, I’ve thought that his performances in these proceedings have continually shown that he does not belong anywhere near an important elected office, and last Monday’s showing was no different.  Obviously, many people disagree, or Trump wouldn’t be the Republican nominee and be competitive in general election polling.  Trump and his supporters have predictably, if not particularly rationally, claimed that he was the clear winner of his debate with Hillary, and even some who don’t share that belief have said they thought Trump may have won the early portion of the debate.  I wouldn’t say that, but I will agree that things went somewhat better for Trump early in the evening, as he was more able to stay in control and stick to his own preferred themes.  Even then, though, he was basically reiterating his stock complaints about the evils of trade deals and the lack of American “winning,” without sharing any specifics about his plans to make things better.  This did nothing to persuade me that Donald Trump should be President, but I expected that his fans and perhaps some potential supporters would appreciate his talk about the problems he sees in the country and his characterization of Hillary Clinton as part of the political class that has failed to solve them for a very long time.  In fact, I rather think that many would consider pretty perfect a debate in which Trump devoted all of his speaking time entirely to criticizing and insulting Clinton, Democrats, politicians in general, and other countries, but I’d prefer more concentration on substance from everyone involved.

As for Hillary Clinton, overall I thought that she acquitted herself well in Monday’s debate.  Especially after the first segment, where Trump had her on the defensive while attacking her for now agreeing with him about opposition to the TPP trade deal, she seemed to do a good job of remaining calm and focussed.  Clinton didn’t appear rattled or angry as Trump spent most of his time sending criticism and far-reaching blame her way, either personally or as some generalized representative of everyone who’s ever been part of the government.  She even joked about the way it seemed he’d blame her for everything that’s ever happened by the end of the night, and with the way Trump kept expanding the list of Hillary’s alleged failings, I really wouldn’t have been all that surprised had he eventually gotten around to accusing Clinton of causing the Great Depression, the Civil War, and the extinction of the dinosaurs.  So, I found her quip quite apt, but I would offer a couple of pieces of constructive advice.  While ignoring most of Trump’s attacks and sticking to her own points may well be a good idea generally, I do think that Clinton should be prepared to counter at least some of the criticisms clearly and briefly before continuing on to make her own case.  Also, while some of her die-hard supporters may think otherwise, I really don’t think it’s a good idea for Hillary to point to her lengthy testimony at the Congressional hearings on Benghazi as a demonstration of her stamina.  It’s probably best for her if voters think about that topic as little as possible.

Throughout the  debate, Donald Trump often avoided responding to the specific questions he was asked and seemed willing to offer only vague general goals or criticisms of those who’ve been in power rather than providing details of the way he proposes to Make America Great Again. While I wouldn’t agree with many of the policy proposals Hillary Clinton discussed on Monday, I do give her credit for making much more of an attempt than Donald Trump to actually answer the questions posed by the moderator and to tell the voters how she would intend to address matters should she be elected.  Of course, she also brought up a few side issues about Trump’s tax returns, business practices, and past insulting comments regarding women that he, notably, felt the need to defend rather than either ignore or deny.  Asserting that looking to make money on a housing crash is good business and that not paying taxes demonstrations smartness would almost certainly do serious harm to any other presidential candidate, but in Trump’s case, it’s entirely possible the public will either overlook these things or agree with Trump that they are points in his favor.  We’ll have to see.

Even when he was discussing issues, Donald Trump reinforced some of my concerns about him, as he once again talked about addressing the job situation by not letting companies leave and minimized the importance of our alliances with NATO and other countries.  Are we to believe that a Trump administration would protect the Constitution and freedom and make us safer by forcing businesses to do the president’s bidding and weakening our relationships with other nations?  I thought that one of Hillary Clinton’s strongest moments in the debate came when she made it a point to reassure our allies that the U.S. will uphold it’s international commitments, and this helped her to come across as a reasonable and plausible world leader.

In the end, I definitely thought that Hillary Clinton had a stronger showing in the debate by demonstrating both more command of substance and policy and an ability to maintain a calm demeanor under pressure.  Yet, Trump’s supporters have pretty consistently shown that they will stick with him no matter what, especially if they see him as fighting against the “establishment” of both parties and the media.  So, while I thought that Trump’s rambling, repetitive, and evasive answers, liberally peppered with boasting about his businesses and endorsements, added up to a pretty terrible performance, this may well not hurt him in the polls.  Actually, considering the success he had in the Republican primaries following a string of similarly awful debates, perhaps the voters will now be clamoring to crown Trump King for Life with near universal acclaim.  Sigh...  The only positive thing that I can say about the presidential election at this point is that at least it’s almost over...