Notable Firsts and Failures of the Second Presidential Debate

by Jason Schwartz

October 10, 2016

Sunday night's presidential debate had some surprises, both in terms of what was said and what wasn't. Spoiler alert: the candidates didn't really get to climate change.

Trump-Clinton looming

Screenshot from PBS broadcast.

After a disastrous weekend for Donald Trump’s campaign — in which the Republican Party seemed on the verge of completely jumping ship — somehow here we are, with Trump still sitting atop the GOP ticket.

Despite Trump’s horrifically misogynistic comments caught on tape, their explicit advocacy of sexual attack, and the revolting privilege that underlies them — and despite his continued failure to offer coherent policy — there was a sense during the debate that he was wriggling out of it. Mostly by going on the attack at every turn.

Trump and his cohort think what’s wrong about what he said is simply that he said it. The rest of the country knows better. We know that for however disgusting his language was, the actions they describe — the ones he claims to have committed — are much, much worse. This is a major party’s candidate for president, and he was caught on video (egged on by a Bush cousin) bragging that one of his tactics for coming on to women is sexual assault.

Hillary Clinton seemed to get right at what many people have been thinking for days when she wondered how we are only having this conversation at a national level now, after Trump has disrespected women for decades, and after he has spent the better part of a year in the spotlight spewing foul garbage about Mexicans, Black people, Muslims, POWs, Gold Star families, disabled people … the list is too long.

Donald Trump possesses a long list of qualities that should automatically disqualify anybody from being a reasonable candidate — he’s a vengeful bully, an admitted sexual predator, a racist, and given his incredulous reaction to accusations that he hasn’t paid taxes in years (despite his wealth), he is a man who doesn’t seem to comprehend what public service is about.

While watching last night, I kept toggling between two sensations: on one hand I kept saying to myself, “I have never seen or felt this way before while watching a debate.” On the other, I kept saying, “This guy is talking so much and saying so little.”

So here are some firsts that really stuck out and some even more notable nothings.

Firsts (and Failures)

Has anybody told Trump he’s not running for fascist dictator?

There was a lot of anticipation over how Trump was going to respond to the video in which he boasted about habitually sexually assaulting women. But then he didn’t even swing at the kickball-sized opportunity to apologize.

Instead, he threatened that if he were elected he would commission a special prosecutor (which the president does not have the power to do) and throw Clinton in jail. So basically, a presidential candidate threatened to violate the separation of powers to imprison his political opponent. That’s new.

Trump’s stalker vibe.

Trump’s predatory stance on the debate stage has already gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason. It was bizarre and looming and threatening. And the sniffling this time was even worse than last, as were the constant and frustrating interruptions.

But what’s important (and new) about the whole ordeal is that this is the first time in the history of presidential debates that a man is sharing a stage with a woman, and instead of showing respect, the man is using his size and loudness to act like an interrupting, mansplaining menace.

Islamophobia utterly ignored.

This was not the first time presidential candidates had a chance to speak to America’s 3.3 million Muslims and reassure them that they are loved and respected and protected and that Islamophobia is not in line with our principles.

But Trump actually took an opportunity to reach out to Muslims and turned it into yet one more rejection of them. His non-answer to Gorbah Hamed, the woman who asked what the candidates will do to protect Muslims in this country from Islamophobia, only served to fan the flames of aggression.

Then some Muslim Americans won the debate by blowing up twitter with#MuslimsReportStufff

Since when do all Black people live in the “inner cities?”

When asked how he would be a president for all people, Trump suggested that all Black people live in the inner cities. Which is clearly not a point aimed at people who have any semblance of a clue. Hey, at least another great debate-based hashtag was born.


A presidential candidate gave a wildly different answer to his running mate’s recent answer to a similar question, then visibly displayed his anger by throwing him under the bus: “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.”

A presidential candidate admitted to using tax loopholes to avoid paying income taxes.

Trump claims to be very wealthy, yet he has not contributed to the revenue that pays for the public services we all depend on. What was even weirder, maybe, was when he was asked what he would do to make sure that the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.

Instead of answering the question in any substantive way, he talked about how corporations were being taxed and regulated too much, and that the answer was to cut corporate income tax.

What Wasn’t Discussed

For a debate held so close to Ferguson, Missouri, it is indefensible that race and police accountability did not come up.

When asked what things they liked about each other, Clinton said she thinks Trump’s children are nice and that he should be commended for raising them. Which was basically a non-answer.

(Trigger warning: the photo attached to the following tweet depicts the younger Trumps with a leopard they seem to have shot.)

The Other Elephant in the Room: Climate Change

In the 88th minute of last night’s 90-minute debate, we were beginning to think that yet another would pass without a substantive question on climate change, even though as we all sat there, Hurricane Matthew, which had claimed at least 20 lives in the United States and more than 1,000 in Haiti alone, was still wreaking havoc.

But then, in the 89th minute, a question about energy was asked. It wasn’t about climate exactly, but we thought, hey, we’ll take what we can get. But nothing satisfying was said. Nothing at all. In fact, Hillary Clinton used the moment as an opportunity to tout natural gas, which she called a bridge fuel.

Calling a fossil fuel that is just as bad as all the rest a bridge fuel, especially in the face of the Paris Agreement and recent reports that if we don’t keep all fossil fuels in the ground now we will burn past 2 degrees Celsius very fast, is totally irresponsible.

Of course Trump’s answer didn’t even mention climate change, nor did it hold him to account for calling it a Chinese hoax. It also included some nonsense about a thing some people like to call “clean coal,” which is actually a nonthing and has no basis in practical reality. Even the coal industry isn’t using that term much anymore, preferring to justify its continued and inexplicable existence by exploiting the land and plight of the workers it spent generations screwing over and pretending to care about something it calls “energy poverty.”

If it really cared about either, it would have long ago begun investing in the just transition those communities need and endeavoring to distribute clean, non-polluting, renewable energy to the people who need it most.

There is no question that people wanted to hear a real, substantive policy on climate change in this election. We asked you to write the debate moderators, and 23,000 of you did, with more than 1,600 of you sharing precisely what question you’d ask. So the fact that there was only one question that even remotely touched on climate change, and the fact that it was really a question about energy, letting Trump weasel out of a real answer and Clinton to not be challenged on her moderate climate stance, is unacceptable.

There is not much to say about Donald Trump when it comes to climate. He claims it is not real. He surrounds himself with people who have gotten filthy rich by way of oil, gas, and coal. He wants to dismantle the few regulations and commitments that keep us from going over the brink. Yes, we’ll keep hammering him about the collection of stooges he’s named to his energy team, and we’ll hound him because that’s just what we do. But really, we don’t get the feeling he’s listening.

However we do have a message to Hillary Clinton on climate change, and it goes a little something like this:

Even though your opponent won’t talk seriously about climate change, you have no excuse not to. Millions and millions of Americans and billions worldwide care about this issue. They’re not asking whether or not it is real, they are asking if you are going to get real about it. And when you give an answer like the one you gave in the second debate, they do not feel safe.

No, the debate moderators didn’t do anybody any favors by living up to their standard of basically ignoring the issue. But that does not give you a pass. When you are on a stage of this size, you need to prove to those for whom climate is a major issue that you are willing to lead boldly and transformatively.

Don’t accept the invitation to move toward less action on climate. If you do become president, your legacy —and the security of all life — will be defined by how you strove for more and more.

Jason Schwartz

By Jason Schwartz

Jason Schwartz is a media officer for Greenpeace USA based in New York City.

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