Last night’s debate triggered memories of that Monty Python scene in which an aging, enfeebled man who has been placed on a cart used for the disposal of corpses weakly raises his head to deliver a reasonable protest: “I’m not dead yet.”
So, too, Donald Trump’s better-than-expected performance last night allowed him to clear the low bar articulated by the Python character. Though this was merely a stay in his execution rather than a genuine reprieve, Trump survived an evening that initially appeared to be a march into the valley of death.
His still-existent pulse was assisted in some measure by a relatively low-key performance by Hillary Clinton. On a night when many expected Clinton to lean back and deliver a crushing knock-out punch, Hillary chose to not be directly combative. Perhaps Hillary believed the ingoing narrative: that Donald Trump was going to implode tonight, that he was going to drop the “nuclear bomb” and accuse Bill Clinton of serial rape, then froth at the mouth while castigating Hillary as his enabler. In so doing, many speculated, Trump would surely exacerbate the impression that he is relentlessly hostile to women, and the lingering remains of his campaign would go into free fall. And all Hillary would have to do is stand by and let it happen.
Donald Trump said some very startling things tonight – for starters, threatening that if elected, he would prosecute Clinton with the intent of jailing her, and let’s not gloss over the stunning manner in which he undercut of own vice-presidential candidate – but at no point this evening did Hillary Clinton go for the jugular. Indeed, in a role reversal from the first debate, she was the candidate who spent the night on the defensive, rising to his bait, rather than prosecuting her case and her opponent.
The famous Access Hollywood video was raised and dismissed for the evening within the first twenty minutes, and it seemed as if Trump had dodged the full brunt of its potential impact.
Emboldened, perhaps, by merely surviving the opening torpedoes about the catastrophic video, Trump settled into a hard-edge attack mode for the remainder of the evening, actually doing all the things that he was excoriated for flubbing in the first debate. First and foremost, he did not lose his narrative while meandering to defend himself against every incoming shell. Second, he was far more relentless about attacking Clinton in a consistent manner on a narrow band of key issues: (1) alleging her failures to get anything done in thirty years of public life, (2) blaming her stewardship as Secretary of State for the full array of global hotspots, (3) ridiculing her judgment, and (4) relentlessly branding her as a liar.
But Donald Trump’s only real gift in life is for exaggeration and hyperbole, from his tacky gold décor to his constant paeans to his own splendor. Last night, he simply could not score a point, leave it alone, and watch it do damage. Too often, he raced to outdo himself, desperately needing to whip his conclusions and implications in a manic frenzy of overwrought hype. Trump would not merely conclude that one of Hillary’s policies or programs was unsuccessful , he repeatedly said that Hillary Clinton “should be ashamed of herself.” He claimed she “has done a terrible job for African Americans,” that she “has tremendous hate in her heart,” and that she “owed the President an apology,” once again attempting to blame her for the birther movement. And it was precisely in this overheated rhetoric exaggeration that he appeared to lose the audience. While he was clearly the more aggressive debater all night long, and while he unquestionably outperformed expectations, the viewers were no longer buying. It was a pretty simple case of defeat by bloviation.
When CNN flashed its poll results, Hillary Clinton had won once again – handily. The 57 to 39 margin was only slightly smaller than the 62 to 26 “blowout” in the first debate. Commentators pointed to statistics in this poll that showed that Trump had indeed dramatically outperformed expectations. But what does that say? If you “far exceed expectations,” but still lose decisively, it suggests that many people had watched the Access Hollywood video and concluded that Trump’s candidacy is dead. And to “exceed expectations,” Trump merely need to meet the Monty Python standard: “I’m not dead yet.”
But barring the emergence of a video in which Hillary Clinton is caught on a hot mic confessing to squeezing the private parts of boy toys, this ballgame is over and Trump did not do enough last night to save it. The Access Hollywood video is indeed an iceberg that has ripped a seventy foot gash under Trump’s waterline, and Republicans are now focused on finding lifeboats rather than bailing the tons of cold seawater that is pouring in. After his debate performance, Trump could only assure his first class passengers that his campaign would not be at the ocean bottom by morning.
However: some would argue that a relatively narrow debate loss by Trump is the worst possible outcome for the Republican Party. Had Trump completely flamed out, the movement to dump him could have finally hit critical mass, giving the Party the chance to go for broke behind Mike Pence. But this mixed result pretty much ensures that Trump will stay the candidate… and right now, the Clintons feel much more secure with Trump on the top of the ticket than seeing the Republicans heave him overboard and go with the far less polarizing Mike Pence.
Let’s review the key moments of the night.
1. The Access Hollywood Tape
The evening’s drama began several hours before the debate with a bit of ominous posturing by Trump, who summoned reporters on the pretense of a press conference about “debate prep,” only to spring a trap. Once inside, reporters found Trump flanked by women who claimed to have been the victims of sexual assault by Bill Clinton. Trump was playing mind-games, taunting Hillary with his nuclear-tipped sexual ICBMs, and trying to intimidate the Clinton Camp by making clear that if the video was going to be the only topic of the evening, that Trump would rip into her husband, her marriage, and turn the entire evening into a Reality Show devoted to measuring the relative degree of sexually predatory behavior. Who knows? Perhaps Trump’s theatre had an impact, as Hillary Clinton did not seem eager to prolong the discussion of the Access Hollywood Tape.
This would turn out to be unfortunate, because Trump chose to handle the Access Hollywood tape in a strategically bizarre fashion.
In all of the internet frenzy over the weekend, there was really one thing that everybody in the known universe seemed to agree on, from Fox to Mitch McConnell to Blue Nation: that Trump’s very first press release, in which he attempted to dismiss the video as just so much “locker room banter,” was a shamefully inadequate expression of regret and apology for the hideous and flagrant sexually predatory behavior exhibited on the tape.
So what did Trump do in the debate? He once again attempted to breeze past the video with the exact same expression – “locker room banter.” After a brief and grumpy expression of contrition, Trump quickly flew off into a tirade about ISIS, flagrantly attempting to “pivot” away from the video. These moderators – Anderson Cooper and particularly Martha Raddatz – were not the limp overcooked fettucine al -Lester Holt of the first debate, and they went right up Trump’s nose when he went into evasive maneuvers. Most significant was Cooper’s determination to force Trump to acknowledge or deny that he had ever actually done any of the actions that he had described doing to his poodle side-kick, Billy Bush. Anderson got his denial on the record. I suspect we will see a Cosby-like line of women form to challenge that claim.
The first question from the audience kept the topic front and center – Trump was asked if and when he had “changed” since the 2005 taping. Trump quickly turned the tables to Hillary’s philandering husband, and Trump alleged that Bill Clinton was “far worse.” When Hillary had her moment to respond, it appeared that Team Clinton had made a decision that she should not risk going shit for shat with a turd volcano. Instead, she simple invoked the Michelle Obama principle that “when they go low, we go high.” With that, the discussion of the tape was over… and it was barely 9:20.
2. Trump threatens that he will put Hillary in jail.
Sensing that the worst was behind him, Donald Trump’s confidence surged, and he went on offense. After railing about the Hillary’s deleted emails, Trump made the shocking comment that “if I win, I am going to hire a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” following this threat with a glib comment that if Trump were president, Clinton would be “in jail.” Imprisoning your opponent immediately after seizing power is a time honored tradition among dictators in countries that are still aspiring to third world status. It’s not the kind of threat you’ve ever heard in a presidential debate.
Here was a prime example of Trump having effectively made a point by shining a bright spotlight on Clinton’s email fiasco, but he squandered the impact by effectively joining in the chant of “lock her up” that inevitable rises from his stadium crowds of card-carrying deplorables. After the debate, the commentators were not talking about Hillary’s emails, they were talking about Donald Trump’s Nixonian threat to jail his opponent.
3. Trump was stronger on substance than usual, particularly in prosecuting Obamacare.
Give the man his due, however; he put on a strong show in his withering attack on Obamacare. This is one of the very few areas in which Trump claims to have a specific and seemingly credible idea: that the surest way to reduce the cost of health insurance is to enable more competition. I suspect that a surprising number of Americans could not explain what “single payer” plan is, and find the debate swirling around Obamacare to be utterly confusing and unbearably complex. All they believe is that the cost of healthcare continues to rise. The fact that Trump was able to reduce his attack to a single, compelling theme – “more competition equals lower prices” – gave him a strong debate moment.
4. Trump launches a surprise attack on, uh, his running mate.
Much was made – here, and in other commentary – about the fact that Mike Pence went way off-script in the “Rogue v. Rogaine” VP debate, repeatedly evoking a Donald Trump whose robust policy expertise seemed to exist only in the Governor’s richly-furnished imagination. One notable moment in that debate was when Pence conjured a strong approach to navigating the complexities of the conflicting forces in Syria that included a willingness to confront Vladimir Putin with military force.
Flash forward to last night: Martha Raddatz demanded that Donald Trump spell out exactly what he would do to attempt to solve the nightmare in Syria. Trump tried to skate atop the superficial surface like the unprepared student who didn’t read the book and keeps tossing out jargon in an attempt to run out the clock. Raddatz pushed him to speak about his intentions regarding Russia’s increasing assertiveness in the conflict. When Trump equivocated, Raddatz pounced, saying that Trump’s position on the use of military force was directly at odds with the position Mike Pence had taken just days before. In perhaps the “gotcha” moment of this debate cycle, Trump blustered that he disagreed with Pence and that they “hadn’t talked about it.” Perhaps most significantly, Trump delivered his censure of Pence with a cool disdain that appeared to validate rumors that Trump had not been thrilled by Pence’s debate performance… though no one was sure whether his anger was at Pence’s rogue policy adventures or simply because Pence had outperformed Trump.
You can say what you want about Mike Pence, but this guy has been just about as loyal as is humanly possible considering that he’s been locked in the caboose of a speeding train driven by a conductor who is tweeting with one hand and groping with the other. Pence has to be doing the calculus about his own future, and it’s getting near the point where a sharp rebuke to Trump – or even an outright break with him – might be the wise course. The bottom line: apart from a whack job former New York City mayor and his four kids, Mike Pence is one of the very few people still standing with Trump. Publically repudiating Pence in front of 100,000,000 people is being dumber than a box of hammers.
5. So, ah, what do you like about your opponent?
What other way to end this evening than the charming question of a St. Louis resident named Karl Becker, who seemed to invoke the soul of Rodney King (“Can’t we all just get along?”) in demanding that each candidate say just one thing that they like about the other person.
In truth, both candidates fielded the question gracefully. Hillary Clinton chose to express admiration for Trump’s children, acknowledging that they were a very positive reflection on Trump.
Trump, softened by Hillary’s kind words for his children, said something that was colossally ironic, though no one seemed to pick up on it. The man who has spent the last two months raising questions about Hillary Clinton’s “stamina” proceeded to say that the thing that he admired about her was that “she never gives up. She’s a fighter.” All to say that the thing that Donald Trump admires most about Hillary Clinton sounds a great deal like the thing he claims she lacks. Wow.
When all was said and done last night, both candidates could conclude that they had had a reasonably good night. Trump had a far better debate performance than his first outing. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, emerged from the evening largely unscathed.
Of course at this stage of a presidential race, anything resembling a tie is a win for the candidate who is ahead. And by CNN’s instant poll, Hillary Clinton actually won.
Perhaps all Donald Trump wants at this point is to be able to say that he won the 150 or so electoral votes that are the automatic bogey for anyone on the Republican ticket.
So he may have accomplished one vital goal towards that end: he probably avoided the utter humiliation of facing a Republican firing squad bent on removing him from the ticket.
But that may well be the best news of all for Hillary Clinton. She’d rather run the last month against a humiliated party spearheaded by an embarrassing sexual predator than by a resurgent opposition energized by a back-up quarterback with a hot hand.
And she got her wish.
Trump – a pathetic man who would be worthy of Monty Python humor if he were not so utterly despicable -- is not quite dead yet.
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