Trump vs. Clinton II: In Any Other Election Year …

NEWS ANALYSIS: Both presidential candidates’ flaws remained front and center in their acrimonious second debate, reminding Catholic voters of the need to focus on the true essentials of the political process.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the town-hall debate at Washington University on Oct. 9 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the town-hall debate at Washington University on Oct. 9 in St. Louis, Missouri. (photo: Getty Images/Scott Olson)

The second presidential debate was held at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton.

A near record-setting audience tuned in to see the first debate two weeks ago, witnessing a spectacle of bickering and missed opportunities.

The question was asked at the end by many observers whether the next debate would possibly be even more bitter. Sunday night’s debate provided a depressing answer.

In any other election year, the revelations regarding Hillary Clinton and the leaked portions of her speech to Goldman Sachs would be the headline entering the debate. Not this year. The big story — understandably — was focused on the video of Donald Trump’s vulgar language that left many of his supporters both shocked and repulsed.

The first debate ground Trump’s momentum to a halt, and it was followed by a week of battering regarding his taxes. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, helped to get the campaign moving forward again in his debate with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, but any progress was obliterated by the latest scandal.

The Trump video had the effect not only of costing him the support of many Republican and religious leaders, but also placing in peril his path to the election through the all-important swing states. The road to 270 electoral votes, which is necessary to win the White House, is a tenuous one for any Republican nominee because of the demographics of voting and the distribution of the electoral votes, and Trump’s job became manifestly more difficult because of the revelations.

Many seasoned political figures would have never recovered from the previous 48 hours. To be sure, the weekend wounded his prospects badly because it exacerbated what had been a reputation for crudeness and questions of temperament and decency. A candidate with his baggage could ill-afford such an attack on a fundamental weakness.

As it was, the very first question (how could it not be) was about the scandal and Trump’s behavior. Trump, however, chose to bulldoze ahead with an apology of sorts at the very start of the debate that tried to put to rest — or at least tried to move on from — the whole scandal. He sought to deflect the entire issue from himself by focusing on ISIS and the threats to America, even as he tried to assure the national audience that he actually respected women.

For her part, Clinton chose to contextualize the scandal as an essentially disqualifying one that was in keeping with his other comments on race and ethnicity.

The tactical challenge for Clinton, however, was that any debate, even one so overshadowed by one storyline, must eventually move on to other topics. Sensibly, Clinton tried to return to her key theme that Trump is inherently disqualified and unfit to be president. That might have been a stronger argument were she also not facing her own problems and electoral challenges, and had she not been facing questions from the town-hall audience about her judgment regarding the email scandal and Benghazi.

In an ironic twist, the last question of the debate was from an audience member who wanted to ask each candidate to say something that they respected about their rival. Clinton chose to salute Trump’s children, while Trump expressed respect for Clinton’s unflagging determination.

Between Trump’s response to the video and the last question from the average voters, the back-and-forth was bitter, acrimonious and personal. Neither candidate likes the other; it showed throughout.

Trump was the more aggressive of the debaters in round two. After a first half hour focused on his own scandals, he jumped at the opportunity to talk about Clinton’s email troubles. In the first debate, he missed several opportunities to raise the issue of Clinton’s private server. In debate two, he was repeatedly attacking on the issue, and Clinton seemed at times surprised by the questions on that subject from the moderators, Martha Raddatz of ABC and Anderson Cooper of CNN, who were ostensibly reading questions from real voters.

For the rest of the evening, the two battered each other with attacks both personal and political. Clinton displayed her customary command of policy. Trump, meanwhile, showed flashes of having prepared for the debate, but more important from his standpoint was that he did not allow himself to become distracted as he did throughout the first debate and miss obvious moments of rhetorical advantage.

Lost in the grinding battle of accusations and bitterness were some important moments of real policy discussion that were of interest to faith voters. Clinton declared that she would appoint Supreme Court justices who would uphold Roe v. Wade and warned that on Trump’s list of possible justices were names of jurists who would overturn the abortion law. Trump, in reply, declared his commitment to finding justices who would carry on the legacy of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

These passing moments of substance, in which policy proposals and very different philosophical ideas were debated and discussed, were often lost in the flurry of attacks.

In any other election year, a nominee might very well have resigned even before the debate started. This is not any other election year. Leaving Missouri, the Clinton campaign will likely view the second debate as its own missed opportunity to end the election on the stage at Washington University.

Clinton continues to struggle in connecting with average voters who question whether she is trustworthy and honest. In any other election year, those deficits would not have prevented the second debate from becoming a pro forma exercise ending with the agreement that, deficits aside, her rival was finished.

This is 2016, in an era of celebrity culture and after decades of coarsening political discourse — to which, ironically, the Clinton years in the 1990s contributed — Trump is now even more weighed down by the long legacy of his demeanor and both his temperament and language, but his campaign will apparently go forward.

Trump still has a long road ahead, but that in itself was a victory of sorts simply because he is able to move on to talk about other issues. Whether it actually will salvage the campaign will be subject to post-debate analysis and extensive polling over the next few days.

At the end of the first debate, the election was a toss-up. What followed was a series of body blows to the Trump campaign. He cannot withstand many more, but the unexpected happened, and Trump and his supporters must now hope that the next revelation, should it come, proves just as damaging to his opponent.

Now less than 30 days away from the election, and with one more debate to come, faith voters have much to consider. Catholics have the task of discerning, praying and forming their consciences. And, helpfully, we have the tools to make that decision wisely. We should use them well and wisely.

Ultimately, of course, it will have less to do with the candidates and more to do with what is most essential, what is truly for us utterly inviolable and that we have an obligation to discuss and bring powerfully into the public square. Msgr. Charles Pope reminded us of that in a recent blog post. He wrote some words that will be useful over the next few weeks as we all prepare for the third debate:

“To all Catholics I say, be Catholic. Vote as a Catholic with a Catholic moral vision. Advance the Kingdom of God.” 

That has been true in every other election year. This year, especially this year, is no exception.

Matthew Bunson, Ph.D., is senior contributor to the Register and EWTN News.