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.