Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had their second presidential debate (transcript here) last night. Today the pundits will argue over who landed the most blows and which candidate won. It’s easier to see who lost than it is to determine a winner. The big loser of the night was the Republican Party.
Trump performed much better last night that in his first debate. For the most part, he was able to control himself and was able to land some heavy blows on Hillary Clinton regarding her deleted emails and corruption. The problem with Trump’s performance is that it won’t be enough to save his campaign. It will, however, help stem the tide of defections and retracted endorsements that Trump has suffered since last Friday when his “Access Hollywood” video was released.
An embarrassing performance by Trump might have saved the GOP. But Trump did not deliver an embarrassing performance. Trump was able to hold his own, but did not deliver anything resembling a knockout blow to Hillary Clinton.
In fact, one of the most memorable moments of the night was a line that garnered Trump applause, but may come back to haunt him. Hillary Clinton had just said, “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.” Trump’s quick retort was, “Because you’d be in jail.” (Applause.)
While the line will undoubtedly be repeated ad nauseam by Trump supporters, it is less likely that it will score him points with undecided and moderate voters. If a voter is undecided at this point, they are still considering Hillary Clinton as well as Donald Trump. If they are considering Clinton, it’s unlikely that they agree with Trump and the Republican base that Hillary is a criminal. It may backfire on Trump to threaten jailing a candidate that half the country is considering, especially with Trump’s association with Vladimir Putin and other dictators, as well as charges that Trump himself may be a budding authoritarian.
“I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it,” Trump had said earlier in the night. “But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.”
“You’d be in jail” does not seem to indicate a fair investigation or trial. In fact, the comment hearkens back to the numerous presumptions of guilt in open cases that conservatives have criticized President Obama for. “You’d be in jail” is a prejudicial statement that implies President Trump wants a certain outcome and knows in advance what it would be. Trump’s comment made Hillary’s point for her.
The “jail” statement, along with a pre-debate press conference that resurrected Clinton scandals of the past, were celebrated by Trump supporters. Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick all accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and some had also charged that Hillary had also intimidated or threatened them to cover up Bill’s behavior. Kathy Shelton, who had dealt with Hillary as a 12-year-old rape victim, was also at the press conference.
Both the “jail” comment and the press conference are examples of how Trump is playing to his base, rather than to the undecided voters who will decide the election. Such tactics fire up his supporters, but risk turning off undecided voters. Trump overlooks the fact that Hillary’s popularity was at its highest during the Bill Clinton sex scandals of the ‘90s. He risks generating sympathy for her by bringing them up again. Trump also risks the release of more damaging information in response. A producer of “The Apprentice” has already said that “far worse” tapes of Trump exist.
Hillary Clinton also had bad moments. One of the worst was a truly bizarre statement in which she evoked the memory of Abraham Lincoln, “Honest Abe,” in response to a question about duplicity in her public positions and what she had said in private speeches. In the end, there were no huge missteps that would serve to disqualify her among voters who haven’t ruled her out already.
Nothing that Trump or Clinton did makes Trump any more palatable than he was on Saturday to many voters. Trump’s debate performance will not erase his words from the minds of women voters. Dozens of Republicans have already abandoned Trump and called for him to withdraw from the race. The debate will not draw them back, but it may slow future defections.
Rather than the deadlock that we saw last night, an embarrassing performance by Trump would have been more merciful to the GOP. It would have increased the chances that Trump would quit the race and be replaced by an electable candidate. Republicans would not have to choose between their principles and their nominee. Now that won’t happen and the party will continue to be torn apart.
The debate won’t change the trend toward Hillary in the swing states. The Trump tapes might even start shifting Senate races toward the Democrats.
Worst of all for Republicans, the necessity of defending Trump will do lasting damage to the party’s reputation. The party of family values and religious morality has descended to the point where it is making the case that bragging about sexual assault is typical male “locker room talk.” Republicans, many of them professing Christians, excuse Trump because “Bill Clinton did it too.” A promising generation of young conservative leaders will be tainted by their association with and support for Mr. Trump. Many careers, not limited to Mike Pence, will be seriously damaged by the fallout.
The debate won’t save Trump. It will just enable him to take the Republican Party down with him.