Everyone expected Sunday night’s town hall debate to get ugly. It capped off one of the most explosive weekends in American political history. The Republican nominee had been caught on tape making vulgar comments about women, which caused an avalanche of GOP lawmakers to rescind their support. The Democratic nominee was handling a mess of her own—the leaked transcripts of speeches she had kept secret during the primaries.
Nonetheless, the raw tension on the debate stage Sunday night still shocked.
There was Donald Trump calling Hillary Clinton the “devil,” a person filled with “tremendous hatred” whom he would jail if he were president. There was Clinton’s icy nod at Trump upon their greeting—no handshake—and her almost immediately declaring Trump “unfit to serve.” Discussions about policy frequently vacillated into personal attacks. And at the end of the night, when an audience member asked each candidate to say something nice about the other, they hardly hid their reluctance.
So: Was this the nastiest, lowest moment in presidential debate history. And what does it matter to the state of the race? We asked some of the savviest political watchers and operatives to talk us through what we just witnessed—“incomprehensibly demoralizing,” “a grim, tawdry affair,” and “surreal, bizarre and often entertaining” were some of their responses—and game out what it means for this highly unusual election. Here’s what they had to say.
‘So far outside the norm that it is hard to position it fully within the history of presidential debates’
Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, co-host of the Past Present podcast and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics
Sunday night was the lowest point in presidential debate history, no contest. A major party candidate vowed that if his opponent won, he would have her prosecuted and imprisoned. “Lock her up” has been a disturbing rally chant for months now, but Donald Trump has never gone so far as to promise Hillary Clinton’s prosecution. We’ve never seen such a wholesale attack not just on a candidate, but on the rule of law.
But if constitutional order isn’t your thing, there were plenty of other low points. Trump, faced with his boasts about sexually assaulting women, offered not an apology but a dismissal—“locker room talk.” He trotted out women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, seating them in the front row of the audience and shouting them out early in the debate. He accused Hillary Clinton of having “tremendous hate in her heart.” None of this is normal. Indeed, it’s so far outside the norm that it is hard to position it fully within the history of presidential debates. There just aren’t any parallels.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Clinton’s responses. That’s because she delivered a standard debate performance, one modeled after her husband’s empathetic turn at the first town hall debate in 1992. She spoke personally and with warmth to audience members and repeatedly pivoted toward her central campaign themes. Trump baited; she refused to bite. But how do you assess a normal performance in response to an unprecedented one? The overall effect is disjointed, unpleasant and bizarre—just like the rest of the 2016 campaign.
‘Declaring yourself the judge and the jury is what tyrants do’
Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and editor of Dissent
The lowest point in this debate—and any debate since the first ones in 1960—was when Donald Trump vowed to prosecute Hillary Clinton if he wins the presidency and then said she should be in jail already. Declaring yourself the judge and the jury is what tyrants do, not presidents who have to abide by the Constitution and the common law.
But otherwise, the debate was rather predictable: Trump was Trump: bombastic, aggressive, arrogant, eminently quotable. Clinton was Clinton: rather wonkish and defensive, but effective when she emphasized how central tolerance of differences is to a working democracy. Her big mistake was not confronting Trump with all the Republicans in Congress who have repudiated him. His big mistake was in minimizing his boast at committing sexual assault in that Access Hollywood tape. And so we will have to sit through a third of these fiascos in less than two weeks.
‘The culture has changed’
Newt Gingrich, former U.S. speaker of the House
The debate was an accurate reflection of the depth of passion between the insurgency and the establishment. The toughest parts reflect how much the culture has changed. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were protected by news media conventions such that certain topics simply weren’t reported or officially discussed. We now live in a much tougher, more open and more vulgar world. It is part of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s essay on defining deviancy down.
‘A nuclear bomb went off in American politics’
Ron Bonjean, a partner of the public affairs firm ROKK Solutions and former top spokesman in the Senate and House of Representatives
On Sunday night, a nuclear bomb went off in American politics. For the first time on a debate stage, one candidate threatened to put the other one in jail.
While the 2016 campaign overall is in a very sad state of affairs, Donald Trump largely stopped the bleeding on Sunday within the Republican ranks with his improved debate performance. However, with certain moves like his repeated mentions of Sid Blumenthal, a name not widely recognized outside of his ideological realm, it’s unlikely he was able to bring in more general election voters into his camp beyond the conservative base. The expectations bar was set low, but Trump performed better than Hillary Clinton in the debate because he was more aggressive, successfully counterpunched and kept hitting on his broad attack themes against Clinton of change and character. While she left a number of attacks unanswered, Clinton did hold her own on many policy issues that would really play well to her own base such as her answers regarding Obamacare and tax issues, but not to the broader electorate.
So yes, lowest moment in debate history. But now, we’re back to the back and forth of a historically low campaign in general.
‘It just seemed profoundly sad’
Virginia Heffernan, author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art
If Hillary Clinton was savoring a moral advantage as she took the stage on Sunday night, it didn’t register on her face. Instead, she looked bereft. Donald Trump, too—he seemed enervated, wary. A funereal spirit haunted the debate proceedings.
“This is like medieval times,” said Trump, in response to the moderators’ first question. Although he had been asked about his stated practice of molesting women, he was talking about Syria. His point? “I’m not as bad as ISIS,” as commentator Van Jones put it.
But something maybe was medieval Sunday night, where the Middle Ages are figured not as a time of esoteric torture but a time of plague, famine and near-universal grief. Although Trump had just been roundly censured by Republicans, including his own wife and running mate, for boasting about violently seizing women’s vaginas, and although Trump had convened a surprise press conference with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, the evening didn’t seem like a “freak show” or a “media circus” or evidence of “the coarsening of American politics.” It just seemed profoundly sad.
Even Michelle Obama’s winner, when Clinton reprised it—“When they go low, we go high”—seemed to have lost its freshness. Trump’s relentless pride in his shallowness, greed, abuses of power, bigotry, incompetence in business, incitements to violence and even sedition—none of this seemed merely “low” anymore, like an oh-no-he-didn’t episode of The Apprentice. It seemed, instead, incomprehensibly demoralizing. Desperately sad.
No longer did either candidate, frankly, seem interested in conjuring an abstract battle between regular Joes and social-justice warriors, or deplorables and hypocrites with advanced degrees. Trump has spent the past year opening fire on normalcy and having everyone from his advisers to the media to his party beg him to stop. On Sunday, he still didn’t stop, though he may have paused to reload. Many Republicans have now disavowed him, and there’s now no doubt: Trump will never, ever have a reckoning. He will never fall to his knees. He will never search his soul as George W. Bush did when he gave up drinking, or as Barack Obama did when he finally met his father, or as Joe Biden did when his wife and infant daughter died in a car accident. Possibly, this is because, as Mark Singer wrote of Trump in a 1997 New Yorker profile, Trump leads “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”
Clinton appeared at the debate like a school principal on the day after a school shooting. She looked grave and grief-stricken. And Trump, in sidelong glances, like the shooter, seemed to be nervously assessing the carnage: Was his wife doubting him? His daughter? His running mate? Might he lose some actual property with this damned locker-room tape?
Clinton kept her head up. If she was aiming to win something on Sunday—crush Trump, spite him, let him dangle—she didn’t. In fact, she seemed to have her hands full trying not to cry, to mourn the system of American governance that she has put a lifetime’s worth of faith in. She managed it.
Who knows how Trump’s remorselessness about his video, his lies, his venality, his pledge to jail his opponent if he wins will “play” with voters? But maybe appearances don’t matter right now. Maybe even the outcome of the election doesn’t matter. What matters instead is the shared feeling of sick sadness that the Republican nominee—and all who have been forced to entertain his candidacy—has killed something that was once very, very important to all of us.
‘Surreal, bizarre and often entertaining’
Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, a co-partner in Javelin, a literary agency and communications firm, and Politico Magazine contributing editor
Was this the lowest point in presidential debate history? Not sure I’d call it that. But it was the first in which both candidates accused the other of being complicit in sexual assault, then ended with words of praise for each other and a handshake.
It was surreal, bizarre and often entertaining. Donald Trump seemed far more prepared and coherent than in the last debate, while Hillary Clinton seemed more peeved and defensive. And who could blame her, with Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick in the audience? Trump may well have emerged the winner of the evening—if only because he was still being treated as a serious candidate for office and, as Clinton seemed to say, a good parent—but it’s hard to imagine how he will undo the damage that this weekend has wrought on his campaign.
Katie Packer, a Republican consultant, adjunct professor at George Washington University and founder of the anti-Donald Trump super PAC Our Principles PAC
Yes. Lowest point of any presidential debate. Ever. It will be talked about for years to come. But it won’t have as much impact as the tapes.
‘There never has been a high point’
Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest
Don’t indulge the handwringing about this debate being some kind of low point in presidential debate. There never has been a high point. Michael Dukakis versus George H.W. Bush? Jimmy Carter versus Gerald Ford? As Donald Trump likes to say, give me a break.
What Sunday night’s debate showed is that, in contrast to previous standoffs between presidential candidates, Trump and Hillary Clinton actually confronted each other. It was refreshing to see them challenge each other directly with real passion, something that rarely happened in the past.
It quickly became clear that even a horribly wounded Trump has got game. His farrago of half-truths and boasts, his bluff and bombast, is the only thing that kept things interesting. Who else would have the cojones to diss his own vice-presidential candidate on standing up to the Russians in Syria, not to mention implicitly praising Iran by declaring that it’s attacking the Islamic State? He didn’t coldcock Hillary; it was Mike Pence he laid out. At this point, it’s Pence, not Trump, who should abandon the race if he has a shred of dignity left.
Trump is the one who has little to lose precisely because he’s headed for a landslide loss in November. Trump’s failure to show any real contrition for his bombshell tape—he dismissed it as “one of those things,” as though he had forgotten to tip his chauffeur—illustrated his determination to remain on the offensive, no matter the political cost. Clinton had it right when she noted that he “never apologizes.” For Trump, like Hamlet, it’s all “words, words, words.”
For Clinton, it was enough to fight Trump to a draw. But the debate wasn’t really about her or Bill Clinton. It revolved around Trump, which is what he likes. In the space of a minute, he seemed to hopscotch from ISIS to healthcare to Bill Clinton’s sexual history. If you thought this debate was over the top, wait until the third and final one, when Trump will truly have nothing left to lose. All I can say is: Bring it on.
‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’
Todd S. Purdum, senior writer at Politico and contributing editor at Vanity Fair
She might have had him at hello. Hillary Clinton’s coolly dignified failure to shake Donald Trump’s hand at the top of their debate seemed appropriate—given events of the past 48 hours—whether it was choreographed by mutual consent or not. Then, barely 20 minutes into the debate, when she cited Michelle Obama’s strategic maxim: “When they go low, we go high,” Clinton seized the moral advantage for an unequivocal instant.
But just as swiftly, she lost it by going low-ish herself. She launched into a litany of Trump’s (admittedly outrageous) statements and actions: his attacks on a Gold Star family, an Indiana-born Latino judge, a disabled journalist, and on and on. Did she make reference to real people, and their real problems, as embodied by the undecided voters arrayed around her?
No, for the most part, she did not. In fact, it seemed the only person Clinton addressed all evening by his first name was The Donald himself. That’s a mistake her husband—for all his well-documented faults and flaws—would never have made. In the darkest moment of his 1992 primary campaign in New Hampshire, he said his opponents wanted to make the election about his past, while he wanted to make it about the voters’ future.
Clinton was right to say that Trump’s claims about how he would “make America great again” elude standard efforts at fact-checking. But she failed to press him to explain his plans (he can’t) by detailing her own. She left that task to the fearless co-moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
At one point, Trump spoke a painful truth: “This is like medieval times” Indeed it is. He threatened to prosecute his opponent should he vanquish her in battle. Jousting, anyone? It’s become an instant cliché that this debate marks the lowest moment in American politics. To this, one can only reply: Clichés may be hackneyed, but they are usually true.
Will Clinton’s lost opportunity matter? Perhaps not. Trump’s troubles are deep and wide. Did he improve them? Not clear. But did she nail it? Nope.
If Trump’s decision to bring to the debate a trio of women who’ve accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct was a brazen case of suggesting that the former president’s misdeeds could excuse his own, Hillary Clinton’s willingness to get down in the mud with Trump sometimes seemed almost as ill-advised.
As your mother probably told you: Two wrongs don’t make a right.
‘The human interest component that usually animates town hall debates was largely absent’
Beth Myers, Republican political consultant, lawyer and former adviser to Mitt Romney
This town hall debate—with a format designed to focus attention on the real concerns of real voters—unfortunately devolved instead into a back and forth of highly personal attacks between two unpopular candidates, without much regard for the voters themselves. While there were some interesting exchanges on substantive issues like the Affordable Care Act, the human interest component that usually animates town hall debates was largely absent.
Donald Trump executed on a debate strategy to pull his campaign out of the nose-dive precipitated by his offensive hot-mic video. That strategy was to pull the Clintons into the scandal pit with him. So yes, it was a very, very low point in the important and esteemed tradition of public debate between the two candidates for the office of president of the United States. And keeping the presidential debate forum focused on civic issues of concern to voters does matter to American democracy, so this was an unfortunate night in that respect, too.
Does it matter for the elction? While Trump might have staunched the bleeding in his base, he neither grew his constituency nor resolved the questions of character raised by the content of the video, and he is no closer to winning the presidency than he was before the debate. Sunday night didn’t make an ounce of difference in the election outcome.
‘The issue … will be whether Donald Trump has so rewritten the standards that his absence of a catastrophic meltdown this evening becomes a victory’
Anita Dunn, Democratic political strategist and former White House Communications director
While this may not have been the lowest point in presidential debate history, in both his run-up press conference prior to the debate and his opening minutes of the debate when he attacked Hillary Clinton’s husband for his alleged sexual predatory behavior, Donald Trump lowered the bar to a level that future candidates will be hard pressed to get below. And as was true of his debate strategy during the Republican primary debates, he tried to take everyone on the stage down there with him, including the moderators.
By any conventional standard of what you are looking for in a debate performance—a coherent vision and knowledge of the major challenges facing the nation, and an ability to communicate a genuine policy platform to the nation—Clinton wins, hands down, no contest, never was a contest. And demonstrating exactly those attributes Trump so unexpectedly and eloquently outlined in his last answer, she managed to do so this evening in the face of an opponent who hasn’t played by the rules this entire campaign and continues to rewrite the rules on an ongoing basis.
The issue for those scoring the debate in the coming hours and days will be whether Donald Trump has so rewritten the standards that his absence of a catastrophic meltdown this evening becomes a victory, and that he is not judged by any minimal standards of what qualifies a person to become president. So this debate could matter a great deal, if Trump is judged the “winner” by very different standards than the ones by which Clinton is judged—and a double standard becomes the new norm.
‘The debate served its purpose: crystallizing the choice before the American voter’
Bill Scher, senior writer at the Campaign for America’s Future, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ” and Politico Magazine contributing editor
Many will say this was the lowest point in presidential debate history because one presidential candidate threatened to put the other in jail if he wins. While that is one of the worst, if not the worst, remarks ever uttered by a presidential candidate, let us not blame the debate for it. The debate served its purpose: crystalizing the choice before the American voter. We should be grateful.
Several past debates have failed to meet that standard. In 2012, Mitt Romney was able to “etch-a-sketch” away his conservative primary rhetoric and suddenly sound moderate, temporarily blurring the differences between him and Barack Obama. In 2000, George W. Bush swatted away Al Gore’s facts and figures by dubbing everything “fuzzy math,” with nary a fact check. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was blindsided by a needlessly sensationalist question, asking him about his opposition to the death penalty with a hypothetical about his wife being raped and murdered.
The moderators asked pointed questions that helped distinguish the differences between the candidates, as opposed to vague questions that could easily yield generic answers. But most of all, it was Donald Trump’s unwillingness to “pivot” toward swing voters, and his willingness to scorch the political earth, that ensured that voters came away from the debate knowing exactly what they would be getting in each candidate. And that’s all we can ask a debate to do.
‘A grim, tawdry affair’
Kori Schake, research fellow at the Hoover Institution
If Millard Fillmore had been required to debate Martin van Buren and Lewis Cass for the presidency in 1848 (instead of assuming office upon Zachary Taylor’s death, and anyway candidates didn’t directly campaign for office then), I’m sure that would have been worse.
It absolutely does matter that this election is such a grim, tawdry affair, though. Americans are exasperated not just with their political leaders, but with the process of politics in our country. They don’t believe politicians any longer solve problems, which is why there is such support for anti-establishment politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Our politics will become even more populist unless politicians demonstrate much greater ability to solve the problems voters are worried about.
‘Like something you’d hear during a sham election of a strong-armed dictator in the developing world’
Peg Tyre, a journalist and author of The Trouble With Boys and The Good School.
Donald Trump’s semi-apology for bragging about sexual assault/locker room talk was bad enough. But Trump stooped even lower: His rambling about how, if elected, he would get a special prosecutor to “look into” Hillary Clinton and would jail her was the lowest point in presidential debate history. It was red meat to his base. It got a big cheer. But it is like something you’d hear during a sham election of a strong-armed dictator in the developing world. Not in a democratic nation.
Clinton, for her part, didn’t seal the deal, but she displayed some of her best qualities. We saw grace when she again took responsibility for her emails. We saw warmth when she talked about health insurance like it concerns real people. She spoke about the tax code with an energy and a focus that might, just might, appeal to at least some Bernie supporters. She sounded smart, as always, on top of foreign policy issues. She reminded voters of her long career in public service when she said, ticking off the women and children’s issues she’s worked on, that “400 pieces of legislation have my name on it.”
There was a double standard at work in this debate, however. Expectations were very low for Trump. His campaign lurches from disaster to disaster. His comments and tweets add kerosene to an already roaring fire. The crude Access Hollywood tape released on Friday had GOP supporters jumping ship. With his campaign in free fall, Trump had to show up and sound at least partially coherent. And on that score, aside from that weird inhaling through his nose and bizarre pacing, he succeeded, especially as the evening wore on. He didn’t have a meltdown. He cleared the very low bar that was set for him.
This election has become such a telenovela that viewers were howling for Clinton to find a shiny shiv and stick it in deep. That didn’t happen. Her best strategy was perhaps to counter Trump’s dark view of America with lines like “we are great because we are good” and “my vision of America is a place where if you worked hard, and you can contribute you are welcomed.” The question is whether in the coming days Trump will be able to survive his own self-inflicted wounds.
‘It was all beneath the dignity of Americans’
Sophia A. Nelson, author and journalist
Last night's debate candidly was sad for me as an American, as a journalist, an author and as a political creature of Washington, D.C. since I first came to Capitol Hill as a Congressional intern in 1983.
The real low point of the debate was where Mr. Trump decided to compare his horrific audio tape to "Locker room talk” and, worse, ISIS. Basically telling we the people to shift our focus from "minor things" (i.e., the lewd audio tape) to the "real issues" in the world like ISIS. The lewd tape is not locker room talk. It is gutter talk by a man of power suggesting because he has power that he can grope or sexually assault women at will. I also felt sad for Secretary Clinton because she couldn't really go there with Trump about the tapes, thanks to her husband's past issues with women. Four of his past accusers sitting in the debate hall watching. It was all beneath the dignity of Americans. The Presidency. And our great democratic republic. I can't wait for this campaign to be over so that we can begin to heal and like each other again as one united nation.
‘I fear it will get worse, before it gets better—very sadly.’
Douglas Schoen, founding partner and principal strategist for Penn, Schoen and Berland, and a former pollster for Bill Clinton
This was perhaps the lowest point in presidential debate history. I can’t remember one candidate ever saying the other should be jailed, and the other being so explicit about why the other is absolutely unfit to be president. But given how our political system has been so degraded this year, I don’t think it will much matter that we have hit a low point. And I fear it will get worse, before it gets better—very sadly.
Still, it was a good performance by both candidates nonetheless. Trump stabilized his base and retained his credibility as a candidate. In that sense, a victory for him. Hillary Clinton also was competent and solid.
Don’t believe Donald Trump will have changed the dialogue or changed the dynamic of the race. That being said, he has a month or so to expand his base, because if he can’t do that he will come up short.
And rest assured, Clinton will continue to attack Trump for being sexist, racist or xenophobic. And unless he can rebut that attack and be more inclusive, especially vis-à-vis women, it will be hard for him to prevail on November 8.
‘You only ask that because Donald Trump dominated the debate’
Roger Stone, longtime Republican political consultant and former political adviser to Donald Trump
No, this was not the lowest point in presidential debate history. You only ask that because Donald Trump dominated the debate. Hillary Clinton tried repeatedly to refer to Trump’s campaign while he hammered her record of failure. She lied again about her e-mail server. She decried Trump calling on the Russians to hack her e-mails when it is her use of an non-secure server that makes them hackable.
Anderson Cooper did not distinguish himself by asking Trump if he had engaged in sexual assault without asking Clinton about her husband’s record in this area. Cooper also referred repeatedly to Trump “avoiding” paying taxes when he knows that Trump’s deductions are perfectly legal. Anyone who purposely pays more in taxes than they owe is too stupid to be president. Martha Raddatz needs to stop pretending to be a journalist and go to the Clinton campaign as a flack.
And, yes, this debate mattered. Trump is back, and this race will be competitive. Clinton didn’t like being held accountable for the first time in her life. Judging by Trump’s performance Sunday night, she is about to have the worst three weeks of her life.
What would the Founders have said?
Jeff Greenfield, network television analyst, author and Politico Magazine contributing editor
If the members of the Constitutional Convention could have been given a time-traveling TV feed of the first 20 minutes of this debate, they would have said, “You know what? Let’s call the whole thing off.”