Hillary Clinton won the second debate, just by looking more presidential, and because Donald Trump said some things that are going to wear badly over the next 48 hours (basically admitting that that Times story was right and he paid no taxes). But she didn’t win it by as much as she did the first one.
That’s partly because expectations for Trump were so low, especially after that sickening press conference he gave with the Bill Clinton accusers two hours before the debate, that people half expected him to spend 90 minutes screaming “Juanita Broaddrick, Juanita Broaddrick, Juanita Broaddrick!” That he didn’t—and that he actually seemed semi-prepared to talk a little policy, on Obamacare and the carried-interest loophole, say—gave him a surprising chance to look, for a few selected minutes, like he was actually running seriously for president.
Bottom line: Trump did well enough that the conversation will move away, or somewhat away, from the video tape. He could easily have fed into that. It came up early. Trump dismissed it as “locker-room talk” which it isn’t, but which enough people might believe. He said he was sorry. Then he pivoted right into Broaddrick and the other women: “Bill Clinton was far worse; mine were words, his were actions. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women.” He actually got applause for this riff from the ostensibly undecided audience.
Clinton’s reply was… fine. “If he wants to talk about that,” she said, “that’s his choice.” Then she said she would follow the wisdom of her friend Michelle Obama, who said, “When they go low, you go high.” She got big applause there, too, slightly bigger than Trump had just gotten.
That was a good moment for her, but overall she wasn’t on her best game. She missed a lot of opportunities to hit him hard, on his taxes, on his lack of knowledge on a range of foreign-policy topics, especially Aleppo, on which it can only be said that he knows more than Gary Johnson knows, and so on. Her answer on the emails was legalistic, and Trump actually arrived with some pretty good ammo. He probably won that exchange.
And she also wasn’t able to provoke him. I thought she was going to have another Alicia Machado—or three—in her back pocket tonight. God knows they exist. But she didn’t. It’s kind of shocking, when you think about it, that she didn’t have that. The Machado moment defined the first debate. You’d think surely the Clinton campaign would have plotted to try to create another one. But they didn’t.
So she missed opportunities. But it’s her good luck that he’s, well, who he is. His amen corner will no doubt have loved his performance. He called Hillary Clinton the devil—no, really—and said he’s going to put her in jail. That was weird, and she didn’t know how to handle it. He said repeatedly that she’s done nothing for 30 years. That, she finally responded to well, at exactly 10 p.m., one hour in: Eight million children have health care because of the work I did, and 9/11 responders have a health-care fund, and so on. She won that point.
And his physical bearing. Pacing. I would say like a tiger, but tigers don’t get that corpulent. Pacing like a walrus, Trump was. Getting in her camera space. Sniffing again. Interrupting again, although not as much as last time. Name-checking Hillary-orbit Jews. Jonathan Gruber, and Sidney Blumenthal (twice tonight, after one mention in the first debate). Whining about the moderators. God, what whining! Four times. At those moments, it was like he wasn’t running for president anymore; he knows he’s going to lose. He’s running to be the leader of the Make America Great Again movement.
But: His base loved it. They loved the whining about the moderators, which they call speaking the truth about the corrupt, pro-Hillary media. They loved the put-her-in-jail crap. They loved the she’s done nothing for 30 years line.
But I’m here to tell you, I’ve seen this movie before. In 2000, Rick Lazio thought he was doing great when he accused Clinton of being in league with terrorists. I bet he got thousands of supportive emails. But it turned out that those emails weren’t from regular New Yorkers. They were from Hillary haters. The attacks backfired, and he lost by a humiliating margin.
Trump pleased the base. That much is indisputable. But whether he pleased swing voters… well, I’d say they were probably more impressed with him than they expected to be, but not impressed enough to think he really ought to be the president of the United States. And the Republican panjandrums, the senators and House members and other insiders who have to make decisions about what they’re going to say about Trump in the next 48 hours? This debate nudged the needle in a direction more sympathetic to Trump. But it only nudged it, and he’s got a lot of ground to make up and very little time to do it.
Overall: A sad and depressing night for America. I think it will prove to be a bad night for Trump: He admitted he pays no federal tax, in essence, and Americans don’t like that. If the Clinton campaign is effective, that will be the sound bite that lasts. But beyond that, it was a sad night for the country. We are in Trump’s gutter, and there’s no escaping it.