Donald Trump did much better in the second presidential debate than the first. Does it matter?
That is the question following Sunday night’s St. Louis spectacle. We simply don’t have enough polling data yet on how much Trump’s recorded comments about women have reshaped the race, if at all.
Yes, it sent many Republican elected officials running for the exits. But a thorough scan of the list shows mainly Republicans who were already anti-Trump, lukewarm Trump supporters or at risk of losing their races heading for the tall grass, not many committed Trumpkins (with the big caveat that Trump’s own wife and running mate had to release statements denouncing his lewd talk.)
Even House Speaker Paul Ryan would fit this description if he revoked his endorsement.
If the voters open to casting a ballot for Trump have already decided they are at peace with the fact he is no Boy Scout, as he says Alicia Machado is no Girl Scout, then perhaps he at least lives to fight another day. But if the 2005 tape was the last straw for many soft Trump supporters, then it is hard to see even a dominant debate performance changing things.
Trump didn’t deliver a dominant debate performance, in any event. A country that must lob nuclear bombs in order to survive cannot be described as safe; the same goes for campaigns. He simply was much better at keeping the focus on Hillary Clinton and her negatives than the first go-round. He was sharper in his pivots, strong on defense. Most of all, he was successful in changing the subject from his vulgarity.
On that, he received a major assist from Clinton herself. She was gift-wrapped a potent weapon in the form of the Trump tape. She did very little with it. One strong moment in which she made the case that yes, what we heard on that recording is entirely consistent with the Donald Trump we have come to know during the course of this campaign. After that, crickets.
It took moderator Anderson Cooper to really bring the issue into focus. “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women,” he said to Trump. “Do you understand that?”
Clinton was probably following the advice often attributed to Sun Tzu: don’t interfere when your enemy is destroying himself. She is, after all, the one in the lead.
But she did let Trump muddy the waters about Bill Clinton’s accusers and her own email situation. Plenty of grassroots conservatives have wanted to see a Republican take it to the Clintons on Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegations since impeachment failed in the last 1990s.
A risky move, given the history of Republican failure on that issue and Trump’s own problems with women. Not one that obviously blew up in his face, however.
Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine anything Trump said or did during the ninety minutes reassured many people about his temperament. More of what he said seemed aimed at the Republican base, not lingering undecideds (although in this unusual election, some of the voters who would normally considered part of the GOP base are undecided.)
Maybe that isn’t the play, however. Trump may be in the unusual position where he is better off trying to demoralize people who hate both major party candidates, convincing them to vote third party or stay home rather than pull the lever for Clinton.
Pundits are overreacting to Trump’s “you’d be in jail jibe.” Even if you believe it was a serious proposal rather than a bit of red meat for a base that chants “lock her up,” even when Trump has been demanding Clinton investigations for nearly a quarter century, he was clearly not threatening to incarcerate her for being his opponent. He was making a (legally debatable) point about her emails.
Part of Trump’s plan for the debate, if there was one, seemed to be remaining in the good graces of the GOP rank-and-file. It remains to be seen, but he may have succeeded enough to spark an anti-anti-Trump backlash against the establishment Republicans who abandoned him over the weekend.
So assuming the tape has done greater damage than any debate performance can realistically repair, Clinton remains ahead and Trump lives to fight another day.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?
Image: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America - Donald Trump, CC BY-SA 2.0