The Wash U debate: 'Free expression,' tape talk, down-ballot concerns
In a debate that started without a handshake and with very sharp attacks, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ended saying something they admired about the other. They also shook hands.
Sometimes the presidential candidates answered audience questions directly. But on taxes, on Syria, on leaked emails and uncovered video tape, they frequently used their time to try to make predetermined points.
All throughout the day on Sunday, people in and around Washington University became immersed in the events leading up to and following the debate.
Hours before the debate, the campus was teeming with students and others, including thousands of members of the media.
Ali Rayef, a freshman, said he was holding an enormous cut-out of CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer’s head, to “bring some levity to the situation.” But he said the focus of the debate should be on important issues.
“St. Louis and Missouri residents are going to be paying special attention to issues such as economic decline, race relations, and as we know, Ferguson is very close to us,” he said. “These issues are really real and really substantial.”
Before the main event, Washington University set up a “public expression zone” on an intramural athletic field between the main campus and the dorms — and a lot of members of the public took them up on the opportunity.
Besides representatives of the Trump and Clinton camps, groups urging championing a number of other causes – from climate changed to cancer research, from approval voting to the $15 an hour wage, from Libertarians to Green Party members — took their turns attracting public attention.
And though the university provided a stage, speakers and a sign-up sheet for groups to have their 20 minutes in the spotlight, the most interesting exchanges took place away from the center.
For example, there were the two dozen women dressed in jumpsuits that looked like they were made of white bricks, decorated with words or phrases Donald Trump has used about women — like “bimbo” and “disgusting animal” and phrases like “a person who is flat chested is very hard to be a 10.”
A co-director of the project known as Brick X Brick, Sarah Sandman, read part of the Gettysburg Address, emphasizing that four score and seven years ago, the nation was dedicated to the proposition that all men and women were created equal. She said the demonstration was a protest against “misogynist speech.”
Sandman, who is originally from Webster Groves and now lives in Brooklyn, New York, said she had been looking for a way to show collective support for Clinton and against Trump, and the idea finally came to her in a dream.
“I woke up and imagined all these women in costumes,” she said, “and the idea of supporting of the wall concept, and instead of creating division, rather we’re building unity. That’s where it came from.”
She noted that the issue has taken on increased interest in recent days.
“It was already bad,” Sandman said. “Now it’s out in the stratosphere.”
Eventually, Trump supporters started heckling the group. Many of them wore T-shirts with a photo of Bill Clinton and the word RAPE. Soon, dueling chants of “I’m with her” and “Lock her up” rang out, but the group was more spirited than confrontational.
Challenges for Trump, Clinton
Going into the debate, Washington University political science professor Steven Smith laid out the challenges for both candidates. He said Trump had to navigate the controversy carefully during the debate, apologizing and focusing on politics without attacking Clinton – or her husband.
“Because of the nature of the hole that he’s dug for himself, this is not one where he can find some equivalence on the Clinton side. He can point at Bill, but it’s very difficult for him to successfully point at Hillary,” he said. “To the extent that he does, it will look like he’s blaming the victim of the Clinton problem, when he seems to be the perpetrator on his side.”
As for Clinton, Smith said:
“If she can persuade people that she’s trying hard to make the debate about our policy future, then she will have won the debate.” He noted that Clinton’s main problem is not about being able to “tick off policy proposals, but can she define a big vision for us?”
As the Democratic National Committee kicked off a multi-state bus tour at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, the video tapes were an underlying issue.
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, referenced the tape, saying “the choice couldn’t be clearer about who we want to lead this nation.” Likewise, Gov. Jay Nixon spoke in support of Clinton’s policies, with a reference to Trump’s controversy.
“We’ll have a distraction tonight,” he said. “They’ll talk about stuff and the press will say stuff and all that stuff. But the next 31 days should be about us doing everything we can within our power to make sure we get as many people as possible voting to move this country forward, keep it moving forward, as opposed to doing a U-turn back to the economics of yesterday and the strangeness of whatever this other guy is talking about.”
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, said before the debate that, on many days, the campaign “feels like a race to the bottom and the bottom is filled with slime.” He said he fears that all of the problems seen this year will have a negative effect on Congress and other institutions.
Cleaver did say that the Democratic “base is becoming energized.” He said voters are “hearing things that are frightening.” Some are just starting to pay attention and are disturbed to learn that Trump was the “architect of the Obama birth certificate lie,” and are concerned about his continuing charges against the Central Park 5 and the idea that a Latino judge couldn’t be fair.
But while some Republicans dropped their endorsement of their party’s nominee, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, doubled down Sunday on her support of Trump at a RealClearPolitics forum.
She said the comments were “undefendable, but his policies sure are.”
“This election is beyond just some words that were said inappropriately, albeit but 10 years ago, or 11 years ago,” she said. “Look at what we’re facing here: We’re going to have Supreme Court nominees appointed by this next president. And Hillary Clinton is not going to support somebody that is going to adhere to the Constitution, that is going to support limited government and that is most important on people’s minds certainly in my district. But most important we’ve got to get jobs back, we’ve got to get this economy going again. We’ve got to have a safe country, a secure country, and we’ve got to give people more choice in their health care plans, and people are hurting. That’s what drives me in this election.”
Tape is ‘overblown’
Some debate-goers said the tape was not so problematic for Trump. Chemical engineering graduate student Thomas Hildebrand called the video “a distraction.” He said he hoped the candidates would talk instead about policy, but if not, that Clinton’s emails or Wall Street would be brought up.
“I don’t think that his base is going to turn; I know that his base is incredibly loyal,” he said. “Ultimately I see Mr. Trump winning Missouri. I don’t think this tape is as damaging as the media make it out to be. And if Mr. Trump can get those Wikileaks emails into the public light, he’ll have a much better chance of putting this behind him.”
Lynn Hepburn of Kirkwood said she believed the controversy was “overblown.”
“I say it’s a bunch of hogwash, I really don’t care. It was 11 years ago, and he’s our best hope,” she said. “I think he said nothing different than many men say in the locker room or other places and it was 11 years ago. So I really don’t care.”
Hepburn said she believes Trump, not Clinton, represents her values.
That reaction led Missouri Republican Party Chair John Hancock to say he thinks “the boat’s not sunk yet” and that Trump will still carry Missouri.
“It’s impossible to look at Donald Trump in a vacuum of Donald Trump without considering Hillary Clinton, and that’s very important,” he said. “In terms of the future of the country … this is it, folks.”
Still, Hancock described the video as “disgusting” and “repugnant” and causing “real concerns” about its impact among women voters. That’s why he reached out to state Republicans up for election, telling them to do what they need to.
“I hate that it puts our candidates and people like me in a position of having to talk about these things,” he said. “I called our entire ticket yesterday and I said, ‘You have to do what you believe is right and you’re comfortable with, and whatever you decide I’m going to stand behind you and support you.’”
A similar conversation will happen on a national level on Monday, as House Republicans hold a conference call.
“Many House Republicans who have as quietly as they could endorsed Trump or at least not openly opposed him are now struggling to find a way to deal with the Trump issues,” according to Wash U professor Smith.
But Missouri Democratic Party Chair Roy Temple rejected that claim, saying those who “lashed themselves to the Donald Trump mast … will go down with the ship.”
“It’s just a more tangible manifestation of the character that Donald Trump has revealed in small snippets throughout the campaign,” Temple said. “All Friday did is demonstrate in concentrated form in a way that even the hardest core of partisans could no longer fail to recognize it.”
He also said that Republicans who try now to distance themselves from Trump won’t be successful.
“At this point, by their failure to repudiate their association with him and withdraw their endorsements, it’s not about Donald Trump’s character, it’s about their character,” he said. “They are saying they believe he is a terrible human being who says terrible things, but he should still be president of the United States. That tells us something about them.”
That’s what makes Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri confident Clinton could carry the state.
“We’re in the heart of America. We have independent voters who decide elections in Missouri. Democrats and Republicans don’t decide elections in Missouri, independents do,” she said.
McCaskill said the situation brought her a sense of déjà vu. During her 2012 re-election campaign, her Republican opponent U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, came under fire for saying women who were the victims of “legitimate rape” could not get pregnant. McCaskill would go on to win by about 16 percentage points amid the backlash.
But McCaskill said Akin’s comments were different than Trump’s.
“It was weird science to support his extreme ideology, whereas Donald Trump was professing pride at being predatory toward women in a sexual context,” she said. “You know, it’s hard for me to imagine that the same people that called for Todd Akin to drop out are not now calling for Donald Trump to drop out because Trump’s is much worse than what Todd Akin said.”
Missouri’s unique role
Missouri Congressman Lacy Clay downplayed the impact of the presidential election — and its associated controversies — on down-ballot Missouri races, calling it a “mixed bag.” He cited for example the tight U.S. Senate race between Sen. Roy Blunt and Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander.
Emphasizing his “great working relationship” with Blunt and praising the senator for his work keeping the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in St. Louis, Clay said Blunt is unlikely to be hurt by his association with Trump because of the “anomaly” of Missouri politics.
“Like most of us, he is an animal to the polling data, so therefore he has more than likely looked at those polls and realized that in Missouri, what came out won’t have much on an effect on his base, on a Republican electorate,” he said. Clay also noted that while the “white, female, educated” demographic is breaking heavily toward Clinton elsewhere, that’s not the case in Missouri.