October 10, 2016 9:20 pm JST
Keith B. Richburg

Depressing US election takes a tawdry turn

The most uncivil presidential debate in recent U.S. history capped the most unseemly 48 hours in campaign memory. In the end, the race likely stood exactly where it was before the campaign slid into a tawdry downhill spiral -- Democrat Hillary Clinton remains the heavy favorite to be elected America's first woman president in November.

Sunday night's debate, as acrimonious as it was, seemed unlikely to change any minds. And a debate stalemate leaves Clinton in the commanding position over Republican Donald Trump. She enjoys a geographic advantage in the state-by-state contests where the election is decided, and she leads in several key demographic groups, including among blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, young voters, suburban women and college-educated whites.

Forecasting models give Clinton a better than 80% chance of being elected in November. Nothing that happened on Sunday is likely to alter that.

Trump entered Sunday's debate with his campaign in a tailspin. He was hemorrhaging Republican elite support after the revelation on Friday of a 2005 video in which he was heard making lewd comments about women, including boasting about how his celebrity status allowed him to kiss and touch women at will. His job going into the debate was simply to staunch the bleeding, and in that, he probably succeeded.

But it was not pretty. The ugliness started when the two candidates walked on stage and refused to shake hands, a tradition in presidential debates. Over the next 90 minutes, Trump called Clinton a "liar" and "the devil," he promised to prosecute her and put her "in jail" if he was elected. He accused Clinton of having "tremendous hate in her heart."

At one point, in order to switch the conversation from his own taped words about transgressions with women, Trump said Clinton "attacked...viciously" the women who accused her husband, former President Bill Clinton, of making unwanted sexual advances. Trump even invited three of Bill Clinton's female accusers to sit in the audience at the debate, after earlier posing with them for the media.

Bill Clinton, in the audience with their daughter Chelsea, wore a pained expression on his face.

Holding her ground

Hillary Clinton entered the debate with a small but growing lead in national polls and in the more crucial polls of key battleground states. Her job was mostly to protect her lead, avoid mistakes and let the spotlight continue on Trump and his sordid comments on women.

Those remarks had already cost Trump the support of key Republicans, including senators John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who said they could no longer support Trump after the release of the tape. Dozens of Republican officials have called on Trump to step aside. Even Tic Tac USA, the mint candy maker, denounced Trump, who said he used Tic Tacs before kissing women he found "beautiful."

Clinton attempted to take the high road and not respond to all of Trump's insults, quoting Michelle Obama when she said: "When they go low, you go high." But she was forced by the questioners to respond to uncomfortable queries about her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state and whether she may have compromised national security. She was also asked about some private statements leaked by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks, in which she appeared to say she had different positions on global trade depending on whether she is speaking in public or in private.

Judging the winners and losers of a presidential-level debate is often a fraught exercise, and instant polls are unscientific and notoriously inaccurate. A CNN/ORC poll of debate watchers taken immediately afterward showed that 57% thought Clinton had won, compared to 34% who declared Trump the victor. But 63% thought Trump surpassed their expectations.

The analysis after the debate showed the huge gulf in views. On CNN, Democratic analysts generally praised Clinton's poise in the face of Trump's unrelenting attacks, while Republican commentators said they believed Trump succeeded in prosecuting the conservative case against Clinton over the email scandal, her paid speeches to Wall Street banks and the deaths of four Americans in a 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

On Fox News, the conservative cable network favored by Republicans, Trump supporters and surrogates were almost giddy in their praise of Trump's performance. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a key Trump surrogate, gushed hyperbolically that Trump's win was the greatest and most lopsided in the history of televised presidential debates.

Dirty fight

But this was no high-minded debate over issues. It was an ugly, insult-driven 90-minute spectacle that likely left the country as polarized as before.

Past presidential debates have showcased the best of American democracy. Watching the 2012 debates from China, where I was living, I was struck by how many ordinary Chinese were impressed by the openness of the U.S. system, and how the two candidates for the country's highest office were forced to answer the questions of journalists and regular citizens.

But if past U.S. elections and debates showed the best of American democracy, this one has been nothing if not embarrassing. Two of the most unpopular candidates in the history of presidential polling are competing to mobilize their supporters by dragging each other down. Name-calling and insults have substituted for serious discussions of policy.

Most of the blame goes to Trump, who used the same crude insults and provocations to belittle his 16 opponents on his way to winning the Republican nomination. Trump has eschewed past political orthodoxy and civility. And as his primary rivals discovered -- and as Clinton is now finding -- he has a way of dragging his opponents down with him.

America, Asia and the world can take solace from the fact that there is less than a month left before this entire sad spectacle will be over. If the polls and the odds-makers are correct -- and barring any more last-minute surprises -- Clinton should win. And once this election is over, we can all go take a shower.

Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent and foreign editor, is director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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