Donald Trump probably won the second presidential debate tonight, overall. But overall probably doesn’t matter. The clash between him and Hillary Clinton over the lewd sex-bragging tape will be what people talk about, and he did not come out well on that score. The Donald maybe did enough to stop the Republican Party deserting him en masse, but his campaign still looks like a disaster.
Trump arguably lost the night before the debate began by putting on a typically surreal, car-crash-bad press conference with Bill and Hillary’s ‘accusers’ — women who claim to have been sexual victims of the Clintons’ iniquity — just before the debate began. It was a ridiculous stunt, which showed that Trump had no intention of handling the accusations of sexism sensibly.
Similarly, in the bizarre opening phase of the debate, the Donald’s handling of the ‘Trump tapes’ issue was hopeless. I blogged yesterday that Trump could, if he showed genuine contrition over the video, end up turning his campaign’s crisis around. Well, he didn’t do that. Rather than show remorse, he said that Clinton ’should be ashamed of herself’. He gave a half-hearted apology and characterised his remarks about grabbing women by the genitals as ‘locker-room talk’. And then he clumsily brought up Hillary’s husband’s infidelities.
She had said he was not fit to be Commander in Chief: ‘He has said the video doesn’t represent who he is … but I think it is clear that it represents exactly who he is.’ And in response he fluffed his lines, again.
After that, however, Trump fared much better. His performance was a large improvement on the first debate two weeks ago. And as the debate went on — and we got further away from the sex stuff — he grew in confidence. The ‘townhall’ format suited him more than the one-versus-one we saw in New York. He attacked Hillary far more savagely and effectively. He still struggled to hold a cogent argument together — but his responses were snappier and he was able to deliver some good one-liners. On tackling ISIS and Syria, taxes, even on healthcare, he scored lots of points, exposing her great frailty as a candidate.
His early tirade about her email scandal was much more polished than it had been in New York — although again, the delivery was confusing. His assaults on her character were nasty: ‘She has tremendous hate in her heart,’ he said, at one point. Her put-downs of him were less rude, but more snooty — so they both lost on the manners count. (The last question was intended as a heart-warmer: both candidates were asked to say something they liked about the other. They both answered reasonably well — Clinton said she admired his children, Trump said he appreciated her for being a fighter — but that did not repair the sheer nastiness of what had come before.)
Trump whined about the unfairness of the moderators, which was unbecoming of him. But he had a point. CNN’s Anderson Cooper tried to ask tough questions of both candidates. Martha Raddatz, however, was unable to conceal her contempt. When Trump starting attacking the Obama administration and Hillary for the crisis in Aleppo, Raddatz lost her cool, which rather undermined any impression of neutrality. Raddatz’s obvious abhorrence for him will tie into Trump’s line that the system is rigged against him.
For all his improvement from the first debate, Trump nevertheless dropped some very loud clangers. ‘I know nothing about Russia,’ he said at one point, denying his connection to Putin. How presidential! When asked about the differences between him and his running mate Mike Pence over handling the Syria crisis, he added, ‘He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.’ But Clinton is not a smart enough debater to pick him up on these points, and he certainly got the better of her when she tried to suggest she had channeled Abraham Lincoln when compromising her values with Wall Street. ‘Honest Abe never told a lie,’ he said. ‘That’s the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you.’
By the end, Trump has done enough to show that, for all his madness and incoherence, he can hurt Hillary in a debate. But he did not destroy her, or get out of the frightful pickle he is in over the video. So Clinton still wins …