Democracy & Government

The Last Debate

The Trump effect has ruined politics for this year.

Why We Should Cancel the Next Presidential Debate

TV monitors in the press room show Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton on stage as they participate in their second debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Cancel the third debate.

No kidding. The dark and gloomy showdown in St. Louis last night was so depressing, so full of incivility, I hereby nominate it for the last of this awful election campaign.

And while most of the blame lands on the hulking presence of the Republican nominee, whose flat-out lies have grown more tedious than terrifying, neither the Democrat nor the media escape completely.

Don’t get me wrong. Like most of those polled immediately after the event, I think Hillary Clinton clearly won, and overall I thought she handled the Town format well. At a time when appearances count, her trim white collar and blouse – stylish enough not to be considered prim – was the perfect rebuttal to the recently unmasked sexual predator. And she actually answered many of the questions, often with thought and preparation. Yes, that is what we want in a president.

But channeling Abe Lincoln when asked about having a public-private position on issues? And really, Hillary, you admire Donald Trump’s children? One son helped legitimize far-right white supremacists by agreeing to be interviewed on their hate-filled radio program? And both sons who posed with giant grins as they held up the slain carcass of a magnificent, endangered leopard, or the lopped off tail of an elephant they’d murdered? Too young for trophy wives, but not trophy beasts.

Detour. My 2nd favorite Tweet of the night: 

A really big, dumb orange.

For 90 minutes he prowled around the stage like an overgrown bully, as restless as a bull, as petulant as a spoiled child, sniffing nervously or perhaps arrogantly to punctuate his outbursts. And saying, as usual, nothing. Trump’s random mashup of nouns and verbs (usually centered around his favorite pronoun, the first person singular) has been called “a word salad,” although that might insult any decent chef with a way around lettuce.

Last night Trump made no sense of his plans for health care reform, fighting the Islamic State, or the income tax code, laying his own avoidance of federal taxes on Hillary Clinton’s neglect as US senator. He repeated his regular lies about who started the birther nonsense, about the non-existent Muslim neighbors who failed to report the non-existent bombs lying around the home of the San Bernadino terrorists, and about his own opposition to starting the war in Iraq. In a no-win contretemps with moderator Martha Raddatz, whose expertise in the Middle East comes from fine on-the-ground reporting, Trump conflated Aleppo with Mosul, then threw his own running mate under the bus when confronted with Mike Pence’s recent statements about the use of US military force against the Assad regime. “He and I haven’t spoken,” Trump snorted, “and I disagree.”

As for that other elephant in the room — the fallout from the revolting tape where he boasts of grabbing women in the crotch and kissing them without warning (because “when you’re a star … you can do anything”) — the pre-debate punditocracy had self-righteously decreed that Trump would have to apologize, really apologize, and appear contrite to get beyond the ugliness. He did not. It was all “just words,” Trump said dismissively, calling it “locker room talk,” three times in case we missed it, then tried to change the subject with a promise to “knock the hell out of ISIS.”  When, referring to the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape, co-moderator Anderson Cooper repeatedly pressed him on whether he’d actually done the things he’d bragged about, Trump said, almost as an aside, “No, I have not.”

You believe that? Me neither.

But for sheer gall — for a raw, terrifying peek into the unhinged and authoritarian psyche that wants to be the leader of the free world — nothing beat Trump’s promise that when he gets to the White House, he’ll name a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton so that she winds up in jail. Nothing wrong with jailing your political opponents, of course, as long as you’re living in a corrupt African republic or, say, the former Soviet Union.

Another detour. Best Tweet of the night: 

In the first debate, Trump patronizingly called Clinton “Secretary Clinton,” sarcastically pretending that he wanted her to be “very happy.” She called him “Donald,” a welcome antidote to the fawning “Mr. Trump” from his employees. This time, Trump mostly referred to Clinton as “she” or “her,” with the kind of disdain you’d use for a Salem witch. He also called her “the devil.” Little wonder they didn’t shake hands when they first walked out on stage, although some had speculated that Clinton might do so and then wash off with Purel, in view of what he’d said on that tape about where his hands had been.

That speculation was part of the run up that also contributed to the sordid atmosphere. In fact, I blame the TV press for helping roil the atmosphere. It was startling more than a year ago, when so many on cable news yukked up the coverage of the primaries as just so much fun.

I’m not talking about CBS News Chairman Les Moonves’ odious comment last February about the ratings and revenue bump his network was getting (“Bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”).

The anchors, too, were having one swell time, and they wanted it to go on forever. The other night one of them referred to the programming before the VP debate as the “pre-game show.”  A lively Twitter debate between myself and the anchor, Bloomberg’s John Heilemann, ensued:

Oh, but I am. And that the game is over.

Thanks mainly to Trump, but also to his enablers, politics for this year is wrecked. Yes, I want Hillary Clinton to trounce him. Yes, I think she’ll be a good president. But spare me, please, any further need for her to “hit a home run” to provide us insights into his smarmy soul. As a savvy political observer, I know how to avoid his slimy speeches; as a devoted New Yorker I can easily cross the street to evade his shiny buildings. But sit through another one-on-one with the same old garbage? No thanks. Really, there just isn’t enough hand sanitizer in the world.

Lynn Sherr

Lynn Sherr is an award-winning journalist and has been covering politics and women’s issues for more than 40 years, mostly at ABC News, where she was a correspondent for World News Tonight and 20/20. Her best-selling books include Swim: Why We Love the Water; Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space and Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. Sherr currently freelances on a variety of platforms. Follow her on Twitter: @LynnSherr.