Debate Debrief.

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Trump and Clinton face off last night in the Second Presidential Debate.

Trump keeps his campaign afloat, but his performance won’t affect the final result.

The expectation was that last night’s Second Presidential Debate would be dominated by the fallout from the derogatory comments made by Trump during an appearance on Access Hollywood in 2005. Early on in the debate, this prediction rang true. Previously, Trump had addressed his recorded comments with a short video, which didn’t include an actual apology but attempted to explain away his behaviour. During the debate, he addressed the scandal in a similarly brief fashion.

He disputed the view espoused by Joe Biden that the recording amounted to “sexual assault”, instead dismissing it as “locker room talk” and following this up with, “I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” He then quickly pivoted to a monologue about his plans to destroy ISIS, and although this plan was relatively incomprehensible, it did prove somewhat successful in drawing the debate away from the subject of the tapes.

But when Clinton, in her strongest passage of the debate, offered a strong rebuke of Trump’s “fitness to serve”, Trump responded by bringing up historic allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Clinton, which followed a pre-debate press conference that he held with several women who allege to have been assaulted by Bill Clinton. Although this was effective in distracting from the problems with his own campaign, it was in no way the best way to bring undecided voters to his side. Prior to the debate, polling suggested that a large majority of voters felt that it would be inappropriate for Trump to bring up Bill Clinton’s alleged misconduct. So although Trump may have reassured his base that he is someone who will stand up to the Clintons, what he won’t have done is persuaded any undecided voters to come aboard. Ultimately, the Trump base is in no way large enough to win an election. No candidate can expect to win without appealing to undecided centre-ground voters, and in bringing up Bill Clinton, Trump did precisely the opposite.

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Bill and Chelsea Clinton look on nervously. 

 

But one thing Trump did well throughout the debate, and which will have gone a long way towards keeping his campaign afloat for the time being, was that he stayed on-message throughout. With Trump, there is always the danger that he goes off on a complete tangent and brings up things completely irrelevant to his campaign, which is something we certainly saw during the first debate. However, this time Trump did well to keep to his long-term script of pitching himself as the only person who can make progress in Washington, as well as consistently disavowing the moderators (and in extension the whole mainstream media) for what he perceived as their biased coverage of him. He regularly interjected whilst Clinton was answering with something along the lines of, “It’s just words, folks,” looking to advance his analysis that throughout her career Clinton has been all words and no action. In addition, when moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper cut him off for going over his two minute limit, he consistently complained that Clinton didn’t get the same treatment (even though she did), with Trump describing the debate as, “one on three”. Again this is a tactic that will further cement Trump’s approval amongst his base of supporters, many of whom believe that the mainstream media is lying to them. But it is unlikely to bring any new supporters into the Trump tent.

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Trump consistently interrupted Clinton’s answers with comments like, “It’s just words folks.”

 

Perhaps the most astonishing moment of the debate came when during an exchange about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Trump said that if he wins, he is “going to instruct my Attorney General to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” When Clinton then suggested that given Trump’s loose grasp of the facts it was a good thing that he wasn’t in charge of law and order, Trump hit back with “Because you’d be in jail!” I thought that I’d heard it all in this election, but the threat of jailing the loser is certainly a new one. Making a threat like this is a pretty dangerous game to be playing. Despite the FBI saying that Clinton’s conduct over her emails was “extremely careless”, they concluded that she hadn’t acted illegally. Therefore, Trump is seemingly suggesting that he would imprison Clinton because of her political viewpoint, a tactic used by dictators around the world. Although it may have been meant in a tongue in cheek way, Trump should be disavowing this comment immediately, although don’t count on that happening anytime soon.


Trump did provide us with the best line thus far of any of this election’s debates. In a discussion about a leaked email from Hillary Clinton in which she suggested that politicians needed to have both a public and a private position on certain issues, Clinton gave a unconvincing response that she was referring to the example of Abraham Lincoln using different techniques to get lawmakers to agree with him. Trump responded with: “She lied. Now she’s blaming the lie on the late great, Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe.” This was easily Trump’s best line of the debate, reflected by the subsequent cheers from some members of the audience.


The second half of the debate was relatively civilised in comparison.

As always Trump answered questions without any reference to his prospective policies, which in any case seem to change from day to day.

When asked about how he would improve Obamacare, Trump responded by saying that he would repeal it and institute “the finest health care plan there is,” in its place. Naturally, there was no indication of what this plan might entail.

On every other subject Trump came up with more of the same. There was nothing in way of policy at all. Trump’s pitch rested on basically saying that he will make things better, but not telling anyone how he plans to do this; much like his oft-repeated (and oft-mocked) ‘secret plan’ for fighting ISIS.

But realistically, Trump didn’t need to put forward any substantial policy. If putting forward substantial policy was a requirement in this presidential election, then Trump would not have got this far.

The fact of the matter is that all Trump needed to do last night was come out and keep his cool, and show that his campaign wasn’t imploding in the way that the week’s events suggested it might be. He achieved this. He debated with much more confidence than in the first debate, and Clinton seemed less sure of herself, missing multiple opportunities to castigate Trump for his lack of policy knowledge.

Immediately prior to this debate, for Trump’s campaign to not completely implode whilst on stage, would have been considered a success.

With this in mind, Trump arguably won this debate. Although Clinton answered the questions better, actually put forward real policies, and showed far better temperament; the standard that Trump needed to hit was much lower. Given the events of the past few days, Trump actually turning up for the debate was a victory in itself. Unlike in the first debate, he wasn’t as eager to take the bait offered by Clinton, and Clinton herself was strangely reluctant to go after him when he made mistakes.

On this basis, it can objectively be said that Trump won the debate. Clinton had the chance to end the election then and there on the stage at Washington University, St Louis; but she blew it. Trump needed to win to survive, and there can be little doubt that he managed this. For Clinton, this debate was far less essential. Despite Trump’s narrow win here, she surely retains the momentum, and with the prospect of further tapes surfacing containing worse comments, there are sure to be many further opportunities for Clinton to trash Trump.

But, for now, the race continues. Will this debate have had any effect on the ultimate result of this election? No, I don’t think so. Clinton remains in pole position to take the White House. But Donald Trump lives to fight another day.

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In terms of the Supreme Court, this is the most important presidential election in years.

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The Supreme Court.

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on 13 February, no one quite expected just how bloody the battle to choose his replacement would come. However, given that Scalia was one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court, and the Republicans hold a majority in both houses of Congress it was, in hindsight, rather predictable.

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Antonin Scalia, whose death created a Supreme Court vacancy.

 

Nonetheless, it is rather rare for the majority party in Congress to not even consider a nomination made by the sitting president, as was the case when the Republicans in the Senate made clear that they would not be considering Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland under any circumstances.

 

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President Obama nominates Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

On the face of it Garland was a consensus pick. There is little doubt that Obama could have chosen a far more overtly liberal justice in order to fill the vacancy left by Scalia. However, he recognised that with his party in the minority in the Senate, he would have to appease Senate Republicans somewhat. What he didn’t count on however, was that the GOP would have no inclination whatsoever to even consider his nominee.

The rationale of Senate Republicans was that withholding confirmation for Garland was necessary in order to, “protect the will of the American people”.Suggesting that with the Presidential election ongoing, the new President should be the one who is allowed to pick the next justice. However, this was somewhat undermined by the comments of two Republican Senators.Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona suggested that Garland should only be confirmed if Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency, because Garland is less liberal than any nominee Clinton is likely to put forward, suggesting that if Clinton win then, “we ought to approve him quickly.” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah concurred with Flake’s view. Comments such as this suggest that Senate Republicans were motivated far less by democracy than by partisan concerns regarding the direction of future legislation.

Realistically, the reason for the unwillingness of Senate Republicans to give Garland a confirmation hearing was due to his significance to the future direction of the court.

Following the death of Scalia, the court is locked 4–4 between Democratic and Republican appointees. If Garland were to be confirmed then there would be majority of Democratic appointees for the first time since 1969. This has serious significance for the direction of future legislation.

However, Merrick Garland is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how significant this Presidential election is to the future make-up of the Supreme Court.

It has been suggested that the next President might be able to appoint up to four Supreme Court justices, with Donald Trump even suggesting that they might be able to appoint five if Garland hasn’t been confirmed prior to the inauguration.

The reason for this is that many of the Supreme Court justices are now getting to the point where they might consider retirement. The left-wing justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now 83, whilst centre-left justice Stephen Breyer is 78. If Clinton is elected come November, then expect these two to retire. Likewise, the relatively centrist Anthony Kennedy is now 80, and surely nearing the end of his career.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy are all nearing the end of their careers on the bench. 

Each of the last four Presidents has had the opportunity to appoint two Supreme Court Justices. This means that already it is looking as though the next President is going to have a outsize influence on the makeup of the court, meaning a sizeable influence on policy for a generation.

Earlier in this election, Donald Trump took the slightly unusual step of releasing a list of prospective Supreme Court justices, who he would look to appoint were he elected in November. Unsurprisingly, most of the list had impeccable conservative credentials. Trump’s reasoning for this is that he wants to appeal to Republicans who want to protect recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United which prohibits the government from restricting the election spending of corporations; and District of Columbia v. Heller which further protected the right to bear arms. Whilst the also wants to attract voters who are keen to see the rolling back of Roe v. Wade and Obamacare. Conversely, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are on the complete opposite of this debate.

Both candidates clearly understand the importance of this election in terms of the direction of legislation in the future. Given that Supreme Court Justices are given a lifetime appointment to the court, these decisions will affect the direction of legislation well beyond the presidencies of either Trump or Clinton.

This only serves to make this election even stranger: the fact that the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history, will have perhaps more impact on legislation than any of their predecessors.