ST. LOUIS — Donald Trump’s campaign was going up in flames so he decided to set Hillary Clinton, and the comforting careworn dignity of presidential debates, on fire.
For all the rumors of Trump dropping out of the race in disgrace, and lingering questions about his desire to actually win the White House, the battered billionaire fought back with the same venom and force he exhibited during the Republican primaries in one of the most divisive and dispiriting political spectacles of this or any other election year.
Most politicians want to win, but what made a wounded, cornered Trump exceptionally dangerous is that he not only wanted to win, but seemed to take deep satisfaction in winning in the ugliest way possible. The only kind words he offered to Clinton – that she “just never gives up” – was the quintessential Trump compliment, just as applicable to him as her.
From a tactical perspective, Trump’s performance at the second debate at Washington University here was a mirror image of his first debate. At Long Island’s Hofstra University last month, he began tentatively and on defense, quickly losing grip on his most effective attacks on Clinton’s character and record – on Sunday he began by subjecting Clinton (and the country) to a mud-cannon assault starting with a reference to Bill Clinton’s female accusers, calling his opponent “the devil” and threatening to prosecute her if elected.
But, gradually, and with rising force, he eventually began connecting with a drumbeat of effective, blunt and focused attacks on her character and record. Clinton wasn’t bad and he wasn’t good – but the spin room crowd declared him the winner, and that might be enough to keep rumored defections from Speaker Paul Ryan and other top Republicans from happening.
Here are five takeaways from – wishful thinking here – what was the low-water mark of 2016.
1. Trump dragged Clinton down with him. Page one of Trump’s one-page political playbook is to attack when attacked – and to create a massive diversion in times of maximum crisis. He had no answer for moderator Anderson Cooper’s admirably pointed question – whether he had committed sexual assault – so he hijacked the camera and pointed it at three women who claimed Bill Clinton has sexually assaulted them decades ago, positioning them in the audience in the way that other candidates invite hero firefighters, ailing children and struggling single mothers.
This was shock-and-ewwwww. “She brings up words that I said 11 years ago — I think it’s disgraceful, and she should be ashamed of herself, to tell you the truth,” Trump said. “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women — attacked them viciously.” Then he said he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her email scandal. Then he said she had “hatred in her heart” for calling half his supporters bigoted “deplorables.”
This was a classic Trump bull-rush, the kind that flummoxed his GOP opponents into a state of collective, mute apoplexy. It didn’t have the same effect on the more experienced Clinton, but he did knock her off the perch of laconic presidential dignity she occupied at the first debate.
“Okay, Donald, I know you're into big diversion tonight, anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it's exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you,” Clinton said – a clean shot, but one that contradicted her mantra “When they go low, we go high,” borrowed from Michelle Obama. Not only did she not score a coup de grace but she surrendered some of the grace she exhibited at her first-debate coup.
She brawled and bickered – and her reactions contributed to a soul-sucking event that confirmed most Americans’ contempt for politics. “Nothing that happened Sunday will improve Clinton’s approval numbers,” a senior Democrat allied with the campaign told me.
2. Trump-Pence: A buddy movie gone bad. Despite Trump staff claims to the contrary, there have been all kinds of tensions between the blustery presidential hopeful and his ill-fitted Hoosier sidekick Mike Pence. They broke out into the open on the debate stage is a stunning way when co-moderator Martha Raddatz, a foreign policy specialist, asked him to respond to a Pence statement on Syria made during the vice-presidential debate.
“I want to remind you what your running mate said. He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength, and that if Russia continues to be involved in airstrikes [with the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad] the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike…military targets.”
Trump immediately shot back: “Okay. He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree. I disagree. I think you have to knock out ISIS,” he said, opening a major policy breach with his more hawkish vice-presidential candidate.
But it was the way Trump dismissed Pence’s position that perked up ears in the media filing center. Pence (believed by some in Trump’s camp to be protecting his own image at the boss’s expense) has effectively pulled himself off the road until Trump fully deals with the fallout from the deeply damaging 2005 hot-mic incident in which Trump described how his wealth allows him to kiss and grope any woman he lusted after.
St. Louis buzzed Sunday with rumors that Pence, a religious conservative who said he was repulsed by the tape, was about to ask if he could leave the ticket, an unprecedented move that would be the most catastrophic of the serial calamities to hit Trump’s campaign in the last few weeks. The campaign denied it, but Pence scrapped a planned New Jersey appearance on behalf of Trump without explanation, fueling speculation that the two men are increasingly estranged.
3. Trump dares reporters to find new sex stories. Asked flatly by Cooper, if he’d ever actually engaged in sexually abusive behavior of the type implied by the tape, Trump issued a flat denial.
Never mind that his assertion has already been contradicted in a variety of previously published accounts – including an Associated Press investigation into allegations of his lewd behavior on the set of “The Apprentice.”
Trump’s denial represents an open invitation for reporters – already fanning out for scoops about his bad behavior --to prove him wrong, in the way that Gary Hart’s invitation for reporters to explore his sex life in 1988 led to publication of a career-killing expose of his infidelity.
4. Donald… still not so good with the ladies. It is a measure of Trump’s shaky position that the bar for success was, more or less, to deliver a performance that would quell calls for him to step down as his party’s nominee. He may have done that, but the larger – and ultimately more important goal of repairing the damage done with women voters was left unaddressed, and his standing with female voters might well have taken a new hit.
He repeatedly interrupted and insulted Clinton, in a mocking, mainsplaining-on-steroids voice. But forget what he said, just look at the images of the debate. Instead of retreating to another side of the stage like most candidates would when she talked, the hulking reality TV star hovered a few feet behind her, glowering as she spoke, like a lurking masher.
It might have helped him dominate the debate stage, and fire up the folks who already love him, but it’s hardly an effective gender outreach strategy and belied his message that he loves, respects and values women. If he loses (and Nate Silver’s if-the-election-were-held-today forecast currently gives Trump a 13 percent chance of winning the presidency) it will be because of his historically awful showing with female voters.
The tape exacerbates his problems. A CBS poll, that included some results taken after the tape story broke, showed that women in battleground states were, in fact, moved by the revelation: In Pennsylvania, 53 percent of women surveyed said their view of Trump has worsened since Friday.
Prowling the spin room in St. Louis was a cheerful, silver-templed omen of Trump’s woman troubles: Clinton’s 2000 Republican Senate opponent Rep. Rick Lazio, whose invasion of her debate-stage personal space contributed to her landslide victory.
5. The Wall Street speeches will be a problem for Clinton. Trump was effective in sustaining an attack, in the final hour of the debate, against Clinton’s record as a senator – questioning her unfulfilled promise to restore hundreds of thousands of jobs to Upstate New York. But it was her own words – a leaked account of her closed-door speeches released by Wikileaks last Friday – that proved the most damaging.
In one excerpt Clinton tells bankers that a politician needed to have “a public and a private” position on some issues, citing, as inspiration, the movie “Lincoln” which detailed the 16th president’s White House machinations during the Civil War.
“As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie,’” said Clinton – fudging. “It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment.”
Trump pounced, and delivered one of the few laugh lines in an otherwise mirthless night.
“She lied. Now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said. “Honest Abe never lied. That’s the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you. That’s a big, big difference. We’re talking about some difference.”