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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Trump’s ‘Locker Room Talk’ Sets Debate Tone

ST. LOUIS (CN) — The only thing either side could agree on after the second presidential debate at Washington University on Sunday night was that it was odd.

Starting with the awkwardness of the candidates' refusal to shake hands and continuing with Republican candidate Donald Trump's attacks on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, the debate offered more rhetoric and diversion attempts than substance.

Trump entered the more desperate candidate after a video from 2005 was leaked Friday showing him making lewd comments about women. He told the audience that it was "locker room talk" and that he was ashamed of what he said.

"The strategy constantly was to say, 'I've said bad things, but she's an awful person,'" said Wayne Fields, a noted author on presidential rhetoric and argument. "In some ways it was that tone that dominated the debate. And she was trying I think not to focus on the awfulness of him, leaving us to read that between the lines."

Fields described the debate as "peculiar" and said the crucial line of the debate was when Trump said, "These are just words."

He explained: "He was talking at the time that what she says she doesn't translate into action, but a little bit earlier he implied that the words in those tapes were just words that men use in a locker room. So the whole question of what words are, where they take us and where they lead us were ironic at the core of a debate where words were used with great imprecision and not very effectively."

Democrats believed Hillary Clinton had a decided victory and rose above Trump's attacks.

"I thought (voters) tonight wanted to hear clear answers on how we're going to strengthen the economy, how we're going to improve the Affordable Care Act and what we're going to do about the humanitarian crisis in Syria," said Donna Brazile, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. "I think voters want to hear that and I think they heard from Hillary Clinton answers. Donald Trump was incoherent and he paced the floor because I think he didn't have anything to say."

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, believed Trump was unnerved.

He criticized Trump's plan to slash taxes, citing a study from business experts that it would slash 3.5 million jobs. Hillary Clinton's plan, Trumka said the same study found, would create 10.4 million jobs.

"She'll put people to work; He'll put people out of work," Trumka said. "Putting people out of work is the worst thing you can do and he'd do that by the millions."

Republican voices in spin alley painted a different picture.

Jason Miller, the Trump campaign's senior communication adviser, said it was Hillary Clinton who was rattled.

"She couldn't defend her own husband on the crazy (Obamacare) system," Miller said. "She couldn't defend her deletion of 33,000 emails. She couldn't defend her open border comments. She couldn't defend her wanting to raise taxes. She couldn't defend herself being weak on ISIS and fighting for regime change at the drop of a hat everywhere across the globe. It was one of the most spectacularly horrible debate performances that I've ever seen from anyone."

A key point in the debate was when moderator Martha Raddatz read Trump statements from his running mate Mike Pence who said provocations by Russia in Syria need to be met with "American strength" and the U.S. should be prepared to use air strikes in Syria against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Trump stated that he disagreed and had not spoken about the issue with Pence, a former member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Republican political strategist Boris Epshteyn said Pence's comments were taken out of context.

"Gov. Pence was talking about safe zones and the Trump ticket is absolutely united that there are safe zones and that Syrian refugees are safe on Syrian soil," Epshteyn said. "And the Trump ticket is absolutely united in defeating ISIS first and Assad second."

While the candidates sparred on topics such as taxes, energy and the Affordable Healthcare Act when not taking jabs at each other, one topic was not discussed — policing in minority communities.

Washington University is about 10 miles south of where Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot two years ago by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white. The incident sparked months of violent protests and brought the subjects of racism and excessive police force into the national conversation.

Trump has said that Ferguson is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, though he has never been there himself. It's a subject that grates on many in Ferguson, who feel their city has been unfairly portrayed. But it was never directly brought up by either the voters or the moderators.

"I'm disappointed that it was not raised," said Jesse Jackson, who visited Ferguson during the protests after the Brown shooting. "Urban policy was mentioned only in passing. I'm very disappointed."

Former Republican candidate Ben Carson also visited Ferguson and met with city leaders, residents and police officials.

Carson said these groups have been meeting regularly since the shooting and have developed significant camaraderie. He said it should be a model to follow.

"We have been talking about what's going on in the inner cities and how dangerous they are and we need to start talking about what leads to the creation of Michael Browns," Carson said. "There are people like that all over our country, who grew up in an environment that is conducive to not having the appropriate respect for law enforcement and the other people in their community — robbing stores and grabbing guns. These are Americans. We need to make sure that this doesn't happen. We need all of our people."

Regardless of which topics were or were not discussed, Fields believes both candidates left a bit to be desired.

"They admitted they make mistakes, but they didn't say nearly enough about how one grows into a better positions, a better self," Fields said. "And I think that's part of what we wanted to know is where they're going out of all of this."

Fields said Trump is playing on our society's anxiety about our changing culture.

"There was something kind of childish about the whole approach to all of this that suggests that he at least doesn't have a very high regard for us and how we think and I wish she would have been a little more effective in articulating," Fields said. "The real question now is how we think about ourselves. We are becoming that country that we see around us and there is a moment of uncertainty then: 'What am I?' 'Who am I?' 'I didn't make those choices, but that's who I am,' and I think he's played into that anxiety."

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