I almost wasn’t going to write a column after tonight’s debate because I didn’t get the TKO of Donald Trump that I was hoping for. As I reflect on what we just saw, I think my expectations were just too high. Trump adjusted from his awful first debate appearance; didn’t interrupt nearly as much; and landed a few (low) blows. Fundamentally though, the Donald delivered a rambling, scowling, stalking performance full of non-sequiturs and untruths. He just wasn’t as bad as at the first debate.
After the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape on Friday catching Trump on a hot mic bragging about grabbing women’s privates without consent, there were some premature declarations that the campaign was over. But it won’t be until the last elector is chosen.
The race may not have ended tonight, but the trajectory didn’t change either. And that’s okay because Hillary Clinton was winning before the debate began and is still winning coming out of it.
Hillary spoiled us with a master class in debate combat last time – with Trump taking the bait at every turn: on his unsavory business practices; non-payment of taxes; and insults of a Miss Universe winner who happened to be Latina and is now registered to vote. Last time Trump wilted after the first 20 minutes; this time, he roamed around and looked alive for the full 90 minutes. If this had been the first encounter, Donald would have received more criticism for his menacing body language and constant sniffling. Compared to the last debate, however, his body language was actually an improvement.
As George W. Bush might say, Trump benefitted from the soft bigotry of low expectations.
But if Donald didn’t crater, neither did he excel. His pre-debate Facebook press conference with Bill Clinton’s female accusers was mostly a head-fake that received only passing reference at the beginning of the debate – and only after Anderson Cooper directly brought up the groping tape. Trump’s threat, should he become president, to appoint a special counsel to prosecute and jail Hillary was absolutely chilling and unbecoming. He made the United States look like a third-rate dictatorship where political opponents are killed or exiled to Siberia. And Trump’s explicit disagreement with Mike Pence on intervention in Syria (“He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree”) reinforced the impression that the Republican standard bearer is not only at odds with his party but with his own running mate.
Hillary seemed content to rest on her laurels from the last debate, asking the viewing public to consult with fact-checking website instead of crisply rebutting Donald’s outlandish claims about her emails, the origins or birtherism and wikileak’s hacking of her Goldman Sachs speeches. She did, however, competently discuss how to improve ObamaCare instead of repealing it; how her tax plan does not raise taxes on the middle class (or anyone making less than $250,000) but his gives big tax breaks to the rich and corporations; and how to combat “violent jihadist terrorists” without declaring a counter-productive war against Islam itself. I thought she missed an opportunity to thump Trump harder on his denial of climate change and the public policy consequences.
Clinton’s one interruption of Trump was to real-time correct him that she was no long secretary of state when President Obama failed to enforce the red-line he drew on Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Trump’s oft-repeated theme running through both debates is that he’s the agent of change and that Clinton is the embodiment of 30 years of the status quo. Hilary’s theme remained that she is the qualified adult in the room who can, and will, deliver real results for real Americans. – whereas Donald isn’t fit to serve. As with the first debate, Hillary looked and sounded presidential. And slow and steady wins the race, even if a knockout would have been more emotionally satisfying.