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Second U.S. presidential debate becomes a game of mutual vicious attacks

Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, and Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, speak during the second U.S. presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

You're worse.

That was the predominant theme of the second American presidential debate, the high point – or, more likely, the low point – of a White House campaign that has changed the definition of acceptable political discussion, cheapened the country's civic life, coarsened a serious process and presented voters in the United States with an Election Day choice that they themselves believe is unappealing if not outright odious.

In a session freighted with expectation – fuelled by the release of a vulgar videotape starring New York businessman Donald Trump and then lit afire by a predebate session Mr. Trump held with women who have accused former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's husband of sexual assault –the two nominees sparred over who was the bigger liar, who was the bigger hypocrite and who was the bigger threat to the prospects, dignity and safety of women. It provided a stark contrast with the 1960 presidential debate over the missile gap and the 1980 session over nuclear warfare.

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Never before have candidates made such raw comments about each other, let alone making those comments standing 10 metres from each other. They assailed each other's integrity. They described each other as fabulists. He said she "has tremendous hate in her heart." She said his campaign was "hateful and divisive." Indeed, the bickering between these two nominees – Mr. Trump with a 59-per-cent negative rating in the respected RealClear Politics average, Ms. Clinton's negatives at 53 per cent – very likely prompted a public yearning for a debate such as the 2004 session, when the biggest controversy was over the bulge in the suit coat that President George W. Bush was wearing in his confrontation with senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

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That was a benign distraction compared with Sunday's session, which did little to elevate the overall debate and may not have altered the course of the campaign because it very likely affirmed the instincts that voters brought with them when they turned on the television.

Even so, the accusations, the invective, the insults flew, ricocheting around the hall at Washington University in St. Louis like so many frozen hockey pucks in a pregame half-circle shooting drill at Scottrade Centre, the home of the National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues some eight miles away.

Mr. Trump called Ms. Clinton a liar – an unusually arch charge to make at a presidential debate. Ms. Clinton volleyed back with an assertion that Mr. Trump was unfit for office – also an uncommonly caustic characterization for a presidential debate.

But that was only the beginning. Mr. Trump said he hoped to put Ms. Clinton in jail. Ms. Clinton said three times that the images of her rival in the video that caused such a weekend sensation constituted "who Donald Trump is." This was live on Sunday night, not Saturday Night Live, though historians decades from now may be hard pressed to discern the difference.

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In fairness, both candidates came armed with apologies, Mr. Trump for what he described as his "locker-room banter" in the video and Ms. Clinton for her decision to employ a private e-mail server. But both were unapologetic in their attacks on each other, with Mr. Trump raising the issue of president Bill Clinton's sexual behaviour and Ms. Clinton saying the New York businessman was prone to "insult women, rank women, embarrass women."

The two did differ over immigration, Syrian refugees, the health-care system enacted under President Barack Obama, and the economy. "She has really bad judgment," he said, twice. Ms. Clinton said "he lives in an alternative reality." But all of that seemed to be filler for the boxing match – a heavyweight showdown without the Marquess of Queensbury rules of fair play – that permeated the session.

Mr. Trump, who in the past several months has raised questions about the fairness of the Republican nomination process and suggested the general election might be rigged, said that the two moderators, Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, treated him unfairly. But the debate was structured around questions from the audience.

"The idea was to have the questions come from undecided citizens and to have them be the interrogators," said Michael S. McKinney, a University of Missouri professor who helped shape the first such citizen session, in the 1992 contest between governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and president George H. W. Bush. "We found that the issues that these citizen-questioners presented more closely mirrored what polls say the public believes are the most important issues." These voters sought to break through the soft-porn gauze, the charges of violent assault, and the point/counterpoint on who was the bigger liar, and as a result, the final half of the session gave the candidates a forum to repeat well-worn sound bites on taxes, relations with Russia, the situation in Syria, and terrorism.

But the antagonism between the two contenders was palpable. They avoided the traditional pre-election handshake. Their spouses glared into the camera. They referred to each other by first name, but with an acidic tone. It was Round Two of a three-round fight, with the finale Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. A weary nation can only dread an encore of Sunday's performance.

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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