Three Arguments about Last Night's Presidential Debate

Last night’s presidential debate took place in strikingly different circumstances than the much-watched, much-anticipated contest that preceded it. Just a few short weeks ago, that first debate took place as Hillary Clinton’s post-convention lead had slipped away from her and polls had tightened; last night’s took place against the backdrop of a Trump campaign on the brink of free fall, after Friday’s revelation of a tape that featured Donald Trump making lewd comments to Billy Bush of Access Hollywood about women and describing actions that clearly were sexual assault. In response, dozens of elected Republican officials rescinded their endorsements of the GOP nominee, and it was unclear what the relationship between the Trump campaign and the RNC would be going forward.

The second head-to-head contest between the two candidates would prove a very different debate to watch and experience, too. Hillary won the previous debate, on both style and substance. Almost all commentators, myself included, called it that way, and the lead she developed in the week that followed—thanks in part to Hillary expertly baiting Trump into a feud with a former Miss Universe—confirmed her stellar performance.

The debate last night was, in some ways, harder to judge. Or at least, there were more moving parts, and more uncertainty. It was a townhall-style format, adding the extra variable of interaction with the audience. And the first fifteen minutes of the debate included Trump dismissing his vulgar, possibly crime-admitting sexual commentary as mere “locker room talk,” and bashing Hillary as an enabler of Bill Clinton’s alleged abuse of women. The Trump that showed up last night was the Trump of the Republican id, the Trump that’s a hero to the party’s Fox News-driven base. Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and another woman, Kathy Shelton, whose rapist Hillary defended in court as a young lawyer, watched as Trump’s guests in the audience after joining him for a pre-debate press event. It was a pathetic attempt at distraction, but it wasn’t immediately clear how the gambit would impact the race.

Here are my takeaways from the debate, in the form of three arguments:

1. Hillary once again clearly won the debate. In a number of ways she gave a stronger performance in the first contest, but Hillary was once again the only plausible president on stage last night. Going into the debate, it was thought that the townhall format especially suited her; I’m not so sure. There was something about the more controlled format of the first debate that suited her prosecutorial dissection of Trump’s horrendous personal qualities and temperament. Last night, she seemed to be playing it safe, realizing that she had all the momentum, and that Trump’s misogyny and vulgarity were readily apparent.

This meant that I’m not sure she turned the lewd Trump tape to her fullest advantage. Her reply when the issue was raised, that Trump never apologizes—followed by running down a list of his incendiary or bigoted remarks—had the effect of diverting attention from this latest Trump scandal. It risked drowning out these specific charges in a litany of Trump crudeness and bad behavior. It parallelled the problem facing the press: how do you draw attention to one particular Trump misdeed when there are so many to choose from? Rather than dwelling on the issue—well aware, I’m sure, that news coverage and work of her surrogates in the media would continue to press Trump on his comments—Hillary seemed to prefer to move on. She didn’t really bring the tape up after the opening questions.

Still, any reasonable observer should have concluded that only Hillary had any knowledge of policy and the workings of our govenment. She alone actually tried to connect with the undecided voters who asked questions, and presented a controlled, calm, issue-based contrast to Trump. As with many of Hillary’s recent performances—even the better ones, like her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention—it can be hard, looking back on it, to have a strong sense of what she’s for, of the big ideas and themes of her campaign. It doesn’t help that she frequently has to argue for the continuity she’ll maintain with President Obama’s achievements—the Iran deal, for example, or the Affordable Care Act. This means Hillary is at a rhetorical disadvantage: she can’t make sweeping calls for change, and instead is left arguing for incremental changes and building off what Obama has done.

When discussing policy, Hillary’s instinct seems to be to launch into a list or, say, a five-point response. Doing so conveys competence and knowledge, but can fail to inspire. She doesn’t always have a feel for the telling anecdote, or for seizing the essence of an issue and discussing it in moral terms. And it’s worth noting that her answer to a question about her apparent remarks, included in a new Wikileaks dump of hacked emails, that she had a “public and a private” position on issues, was dissembling and ineffective. Her reply, which included a meandering reference to Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, would have been terrible news for her campaign in different circumstances. But her task last night was to keep her lead and to let Trump condemn himself with his words, manner, and manifest unfitness for the presidency. She did that, all while Trump’s nasty attempts at obfuscating his own sins failed. Simply put: Hillary is not responsible for Bill's sins, and he's not the one on the ballot. It should fail to move all but already committed Trump supporters and devotees of Sean Hannity.

2. Trump improved significantly from the first debate, but in the service of a failing message that won’t win him the presidency. While I generally try to avoid reading post-debate commentary before posting my own, there were moments in the debate when observers on social media, reacting in real time, seemed to think Trump could be winning. That’s not an entirely unreasonable reaction: Trump was a better debater, in a narrow sense, then he was before. He seemed better prepared, to have more attacks planned, and instead of growing tired as the debate went on, he appeared more comfortable in the townhall format. Stalking around the stage with his microphone, he would interject with abrasive one liners, interrupt Hillary, or complain about the moderators. It wasn’t appealing, but more probably found it effective than his previous low-energy closing last time.

It was a few of those comments that displayed Trump’s nastiness and unhinged temperament. Most of all, he indicated that if he were president Hillary would be in jail for decisions related to her private email server. It was a striking disavowal of liberal democratic norms, more appropriate for a banana republic than a constitutional republic.

That was part of Trump’s come-out-swinging approach last night. He gave us the full Breitbart, Fox News message. Obamacare has been a total failure. Hillary should be in jail. Muslims are suspect. Mexicans are sinister. Our “inner cities” are hell.

This gets at the basic paradox of Trump’s performance last night: he improved as a debater in some ways, but hurt himself and his campaign despite that. It was improved message discipline in the service of a bankrupt message. He more effectively spewed nonsense, was a better version of a horrible candidate—which is to say, ultimately more horrible. It’s not surprising that, with the debate going on in front of them, some journalists reacted to this slightly sharper, better prepared Trump. But all that only more fully revealed Trump’s preoccupations, “message,” and distorted view of reality. He divested himself of more talking points, more opposition research, more “zingers”—but that only further showed his terribleness. 

3. Perhaps the biggest loser last night—apart from the American people—was the Republican Party. The idea that Trump “stopped the bleeding” last night is nonsense. He won’t—and shouldn’t—recover from his bragging about sexually assaulting women. But his performance last night was expertly tailored to appeal to the “conservative” base of the GOP, angry white men especially. And it probably was effective enough to make others in the party deciding whether or not to disavow his candidacy not do so, at least for now. To do so would be to risk alienating Trump’s supporters that these other candidates and officeholders need to win themselves. (I hope I’m wrong, but the GOP has proved rather feckless thus far.)

A truly disastrous debate from Trump, on the order of him walking off the stage or melting down in a vulgarity-laced diatribe—would have given wary Republicans one more reason to abandon him. But Trump did just well enough to forestall that. He also didn’t drop out of the race, nor did Mike Pence leave the ticket. Even Paul Ryan hasn’t officially unendorsed Trump, even as he vowed not to campaign with or defend him. The GOP is stuck with a failed, flailing nominee. By stoking the passions of his base, Trump has left Republicans in an impossible situation.

Most of all, Trump cannot escape the position in which his own words have put himself and his campaign. The debate last night will be a mere inflection point amidst the discussion of the disgusting remarks he made about women in the Hollywood Access tape. If any voter has not yet read about those comments, or listened to the video, they will this week. Trump’s expressed no real contrition for what he said, and his “strategy” of turning to Bill Clinton’s behavior only will make Hillary look sympathetic, and make him seem like an angry bully.

Hillary’s performance last night was imperfect, if also one that worked. Trump, an insecure attention-seeker, got all the attention he could ask for this weekend, and it was ugly. There can be no doubt now about who he is or how dangerous a president he would be. We’re left, I hope, with only two questions: How much will Hillary win by? And how much further will the GOP disgrace itself until we find out?

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

Also by this author
Helping & Hurting

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Books
Collections