Her jailer awaits.

Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

A 'Normal' Debate, Except for the Prison Threat

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Only one thing mattered from the 2016 town-hall debate: Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, promised that, if elected, he will prosecute his political opponents.

At least, he promised to prosecute Hillary Clinton, saying that if he wins, "I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we're going to have a special prosecutor." Later, he said that if he was president, "you'd be in jail."

Clinton, of course, was investigated and cleared by the FBI. But that's not even the point because in the United States of America, and under any constitutional democracy, the government does not designate special prosecutors to harass private citizens who happen to belong to the political opposition. Nor does the president of the United States choose whom to prosecute, as my View colleague Noah Feldman explains

Trump could not even say what crime Clinton supposedly committed. He seems to believe she should be jailed for "so many lies, so much deception" rather than an actual violation of federal code. This way of thinking isn't new: Trump has said, repeatedly, that Clinton (and other candidates) shouldn't be allowed to run for president, as if some authority determined who was allowed to run.

Though Trump's threats were what stood out, the two candidates held a sort of normal debate for the last 60 minutes. "Normal" by Trump standards, that is. As usual, he showed no sign of knowing anything about policy or how the government works. And as usual he made so many factually incorrect assertions that it was impossible to keep up; teams of fact-checkers work hours to wrestle them all down.

Trump seemed better prepared than he was in the first debate in the sense of being ready to give answers and to attack Clinton when he had an opportunity. He ran against the moderators, a strategy that is often successful in Republican primary debates, where the target audience is the most partisan Republicans. It may have succeeded with those Republicans on Sunday night; many of them are ready to believe anything about the media.

Others will note that, for example, Trump responded to a question about Clinton's e-mails by complaining that the moderators refused to ask about her e-mails. His (frequent) complaints about supposedly unfair time limits turned out to be without merit as well; he was given a bit more time overall.  

Hillary Clinton? She was fine, if not her absolute best, but this debate wasn't about her. She got the basics right. She knows the Town Hall Debate 101 trick of directly responding to a questioner, and she knows that when asked to say something nice about an opponent, the easy answer is to praise his children. Clinton didn't do anything to scare off supporters, a reasonable strategy for a candidate with a solid lead and an imploding opponent.

In the end, what mattered about this debate was that a major-party nominee for the presidency said he wanted to use the powers of the office to imprison his political opponents. Don't pretend there's anything normal about that. 

  1. Yes, Clinton gets the occasional fact wrong, and she spins things artfully all the time to best present her version of them. That's different from flat-out making things up, especially as frequently as Trump does, and especially even when has been repeatedly challenged and corrected on them.

  2. I believe that moderator Martha Raddatz stumbled badly at one point when she got into an argument with Trump about Syria. Whether or not moderators should fact-check as they go along, it's not their place to point out that a candidate's response is mind-bogglingly stupid. Even if it is. As his was. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net