Luke Tryl is a former Special Adviser to Nicky Morgan.
After the last Presidential debate, I questioned whether or not it will ultimately matter. Yes, Hillary Clinton was judged to have won it – but by a smaller margin than Mitt Romney bested Barack Obama in their first presidential debate four years ago. Donald Trump, to be sure, demonstrated a lack of policy knowledge and a more terrifying lack of control over his temperament. But he did nothing he hadn’t already demonstrated in twelve Republican primary debates – all of which only boosted his appeal.
The problem for Trump was what he did next. Rather than chalking his performance up as a must-try-harder, as Obama had in 2012, he instead declared war on Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe who treatment by Trump Clinton had cited in the debate. Three days of attacks on her weight and appearance culminated in a late night tweet in which he became the first presidential nominee to implore voters to check out a sex tape. Matters went from bad to worse, when leaked tax records showed that Trump had recorded a $916 million loss in 1995 – potentially allowing him to avoid paying federal income taxes for almost two decades.
Yet it’s a sign of quite how polarised America has become that at the end of all this Clinton had still only moved to a narrow four to five-point lead.
Then, last Friday night, the Washington Post published a recording of Trump not only making lewd, misogynistic comments, but actually boasting about sexual assault, saying that he has kissed and groped women without permission.
This time, things seemed different: the ‘cockroach candidate’, as some pundits have dubbed Trump for his ability to weather any storm, suddenly looked vulnerable. GOP grandees such as John McCain called for Trump to drop out, and Paul Ryan said that he was sickened, and refused to campaign with Trump. Worse still, the incident had the potential to alienate two vital GOP constituencies – married women and social conservatives. In a sign of how bad these developments were for him, Trump issued a rare apology.
Yet a snap poll taken after the story broke found that only 12 per cent of Republican voters wanted Trump to drop out, and Clinton’s lead stuck at four percent. And he wasn’t the only candidate to receive an unwelcome ‘October surprise’: Within minutes of the tape surfacing, a WikiLeaks hack revealed transcripts of Clinton speeches which quoted her saying that “you need both a public and a private position” and that “my dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders”. Prime fodder for Trump attacks.
The contrite Trump disappeared just as quickly as he had emerged. He vowed never to quit the race, lashed out at his Republican critics and, in a truly unprecedented move, held a news conference just 90 minutes before yesterday evening’s debate, with women who have alleged they were assaulted or victimised by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
All of which set the stage for a bitter and unpredictable debate, with Trump entering the night as a wounded animal, with nothing to lose. Team Clinton claimed to be “expecting Armageddon”
As the candidates walked on to stage they refused the customary handshake – a sign of how ugly the debate would become. And within the first 20 minutes, Trump called Clinton the devil; said she had “hate in her heart” and, most extraordinarily, pledged if elected, to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her and put her in jail. Clinton responded that Trump was unfit to serve as President, and “lives in an alternate reality”. Mutually assured destruction seemed a distinct possibility.
Trump looked in danger of unravelling – starting off by giving a truly dreadful answer on that video recording, that at once veered between apologising, dismissing it as ‘locker room banter’ and pledging (unconnectedly) to tackle ISIS.
But despite expectations that this was the start of another Trump meltdown, this proved not be the case at all – and he soon proved himself to be an effective counter-puncher.
He clearly bested Clinton in an exchange over her use of a private email server, and when the former Secretary of State explained away her comments about ‘public and private positions’ by claiming it referred to Abraham Lincoln, he zinged back with: “She lied. Now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln – Honest Abe”. Later he decisively won an exchange on Obamacare, and while his tax affairs will continue to hurt, he appears to have found the best pivot – turning the fire back on Clinton’s wealthy donors.
Trump still made basic errors. His body language was dreadful, and he did nothing to reassure those concerned about his lack of policy knowledge. He showed a characteristic lack of empathy when answering a question from a Muslim woman on Islamophobia and lashed out repeatedly at the moderators. In what must be a presidential debate first, he announced that he didn’t agree with his running mate, Mike Pence, on Syria.
Clinton faced much tougher questioning than in the first debate, and will have impressed with her ability to remain focused in the face of some deeply personal and unpleasant attacks. Her policy knowledge continues to shine, and she was at her best talking about her ability to unite the country. She gave by far her best rebuttal to Trump’s attacks on her public service by pointing to concrete achievements. But she seemed unable or unwilling to push back against even the most easily rebutted Trump attacks, and continued to come across as lawyerly and stilted.
The good news for those Americans who don’t want to spend the next few weeks debating emails and sex tapes was that the moderators ensured that this debate covered a wide range of actual policy issues from health care to foreign policy through to energy independence – the sort of questions that the leader of the most powerful country in the world should have to answer. And, reassuringly for those of us,, who would like to see a little more civility in politics, the final question forced the candidates to complement one another, leading to the debate ending with the handshake missing from the start.
Most commentators agreed that Trump had done enough to staunch the bleeding and, with expectations at what must be a historic low, it’s hardly a surprise that 63 per cent of voters in a CNN poll said he overperformed. Nonetheless, the same poll had Clinton as the winner by a 57 per cent to 34 per cent margin, and it’s hard to see how Trump grew his appeal among the suburban women that he needs for victory on November 8th. Team Clinton will know that she could have done better but, with the risk of Trump being replaced by a more credible candidate, she may not to be too disappointed not to have landed a knockout blow.