This was a very, very different kind of debate. Let me begin with a few general observations.
First, I think this was the debate the Breitbart crew – Bannon, Bossie and the rest – wanted from Trump. He hit Bill’s history; he was aggressive and slashing; he repeatedly called Hillary a liar; he managed to list off virtually the entire library of Clinton ‘scandals’, attack lines. It was all there. If you’re part of the Breitbart world, the Breitbart brain trust, this is the debate you wanted. These were the attacks you wanted to see someone stand on that stage and level against Hillary Clinton. It was a decent shot at the primal scream they’ve hungered for.
Second, Trump seemed much better prepared for this debate than the previous one. In the first debate he stayed on some kind of coherent plan for 15 or 20 minutes. After that he flailed for an hour-plus. This was very different. Referring back to what I said about the Breitbart fantasy play, he pushed that line pretty much throughout. He was, as they say, on message.
Third, one notable thing is that there was that moment we’ve all been waiting for when Trump finally unloaded the whole oppo file on Bill. Again, that’s part of the Breitbart/base GOP fantasy scenario. Indeed, in a very real sense this has been a dream moment for many on the American right for 25 years. And yet, my sense is that it basically fell flat and barely affected the rest of the debate. Like a stone falling into a pond never to be heard from again. He trotted out what all of us have been hearing from Trump and Trump surrogates for months. Indeed, it was what we’ve been hearing anti-Clinton critiques hitting for two decades. Did it matter? I don’t think so. Saying on a stage and in front of Hillary didn’t make it any newer or more consequential. It just fell flat and I don’t think anyone cared.
For those of us who’ve watched a number of these presidential townhall debates what’s striking is how different this one was from every previous one. The citizen audience members were barely part of it. I could recall the debate and basically forget they were even there. Townhall debates usually focus tightly on audience questions, with those questions, often focused on real world concerns more than campaign narratives, driving the debate forward. This was totally different. It was largely a contentious and bristling brawl in which the moderators maintained tight control over time but basically let the candidates have a knife fight.
The part of the debate that sort of eludes me is the effect of Trump’s manner. I said I thought Trump did considerably better than he did in the first debate. But throughout he was blustering, visibly angry, frequently whining to and about the moderators. He was bellicose, harsh and taunting.
The whole debate, rancid and intense, felt like an ordeal to live through just watching it on TV.
I don’t think we can discuss this debate as citizens, take stock of it as a country, without noting that this is certainly the first time one candidate has openly threatened to jail the other candidate. Trump said openly that he would instruct the Justice Department to open a new investigation of Clinton and that he’d make sure it ended with her imprisonment. That’s something we expect it kleptocracies and thin democracies where electoral defeat can mean exile, imprisonment or death.
Such a ferocious claim, one that puts our whole constitutional order on its head, is not something that can be easily undone. That’s the ranting threat of a would-be strongman and dictator The threat itself is like a bell that can’t be un-rung. Through the course of what was often an ugly debate, I was thinking a lot of the destructiveness of this entire campaign, virtually all of which stems from Trump’s transgressive, norm-demolishing behavior. It’s a topic we’ll have to return to in the ed blog and one the country is going to need to wrestle with. None of this is going to disappear after November 8th. These are slashing wounds to the country’s political fabric that will at best leave tremendous scar tissue we’ll still see for decades.
So did that caustic manner matter? It’s a little hard for me to figure that out simply because we know Trump is like this. It’s hard to see how anyone is going to be surprised. By any pre-2016 standard we know, the entirety of angry, blustering manner would be fatal for a presidential candidate. But we’ve been living with this guy for a year and a half. We all have a little bit of the trauma of living in the home of an abuser now. We’re accustomed to it. To a degree it starts to feel normal. My best guess is that through all the muck of this debate it will matter simply because it confirms what people already know.
The big issue for Trump, as we’ve discussed endlessly, is that most people think he’s not fit, temperamentally and emotionally, to be president. I suspect anyone who has questions on that front will find their skepticism about him confirmed.
There were also numerous times when Trump simply lied. I suspect that those lies, outside the kinetic intensity of this debate, will come back to bite him over the next week – just as they did in debate one and similarly from the veep debate. Other points weren’t ‘lies’ per se but he doubled and tripled down on his taped comments just being locker room banter. All of this will haunt him over the next several days.
With all that, my big picture sense is that Trump did significantly better than he did in the first debate. To the extent that one can evaluate these things in win or lose terms, on points, I’d say it was maybe a draw. But the only real measure is what it means for the outcome of the race. By that measure, a draw is a Clinton win. Because Clinton is significantly ahead of Trump with 30 days to go and his party is in the midst of abandoning him. I suspect Trump probably at least partly arrested or at least slowed the run of denunciations within his own party. But Trump needs to shake up the race in a big way or he’s on the way to losing. He clearly did not do that. That’s the only measure that matters. By that measure, it was Clinton’s night.