Good morning Austin:
Since Friday it looked like Donald Trump might be down for the count, laid low by a 2005 tape, recorded on a hot mic – fittingly enough for Access Hollywood – that was truly obscene in tone and content, and had a fair number of name Republicans deserting the ship, and much of organized punditry declaring his 2016 presidential campaign well and truly Titanically sunk
But, at Sunday’s unrelievedly tense and grim second presidential debate, Trump picked himself up from the mat and delivered a performance that, I think, will resonate powerfully with the Republican grassroots and send a message to nervous Republican officialdom that they should get off the lifeboats and crawl back on deck. Whether they want to keep their life vests on, or rearrange the deck chairs, is a matter of personal style and preference.
This was the push comes to shove moment in the presidential debate, and, for his faithful, Trump delivered mightily.
I have written on First Reading several times before – including here (From WrestleMania to the White House, is Donald Trump the kayfabe candidate for president?) – of Donald Trump as a figure out of the world of professional wrestling, an over the top, cartoonish, play-acting, winking figure.
And while the stagecraft of last night’s debate might have suggested a candidate prepared to slam a folding chair over his rival’s head, the tone and temper of last night’s debate was way too real and serious for any pro wrestling metaphor.
The set of this town meeting was more the bare bones, dim, stark, depressing low light of a 1960s Joe Pyne, Alan Burke or David Susskind show (look them up – but last night’s debate should have been in black and white, with Anderson Cooper dragging on a cigarette) than some kid of edifying civic event.
The front rows were out of Jerry Springer, variously occupied by Bill and Chelsea Clinton, and women who have accused Bill Clinton of various acts of sexual aggression against them, with, they charge, Hillary’s aggressive, defensive behavior compounding the offense. (I wrote about this line of attack in a First Reading last week –Can a male chauvinist pig play the feminist card to Trump Clinton?)
From start to finish, Trump was out to destroy Clinton and, while Clinton held her own, she appeared to be coming glumly to terms with the fact that Trump was not simply going to finish himself off last night, and that Trump was still not, at long last, to be underestimated.
The best received moment with the small crowd at the City Lights Georgetown theater where I watched the debate at a Williamson County GOP debate watch, was among the harshest.
Yes, Trump was facing a low bar. Consider the fact that there was serious speculation before the debate that Mike Pence might, in the face of a bad debate performance, exit the ticket.
One suspects that not a few prominent Republicans would have been just as happy if Clinton had finished Trump off last night and put them out of their misery, or let them really focus on winnable down ballot races.
No, said Trump last night. No such luck.
And you didn’t have to be a swing state Republican, or even be on the ballot this year, to be suffering from Trump Angst since Friday.
Well, Trump’s performance was more true grit than true contrition.
From the Oxford English Dictionary on contrition.
- fig. The condition of being bruised in heart; sorrow or affliction of mind for some fault or injury done; spec. penitence for sin. Cf. attrition n.
c1386 Chaucer Parson’s Tale ⁋55 Contricioun is þe verray sorwe þat a man receyueþ in his herte for his synnes.
a1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 25966 Reuth and contricion al es an.
a1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 25090 We hope namli to haf pardun Thoru baptem and contriciun.
c1440 Promptorium Parvulorum 91 Contrycyon or sorrow for synne, contricio.
1530 J. Rastell New Bk. Purgatory iii. xiii. sig. h 2, In the tyme of thy repentaunce & contrycyon.
a1555 J. Bradford Two Notable Serm. (1574) sig. Bviijv, This word iust & ful [sc. sorrow], is one of the differences betwene contrition and attrition.
a1638 J. Mede Disc. Mark i. 15, in Wks. (1672) i. 107 Those pangs of Contrition wherewith Repentance begins.
a1753 G. Berkeley Serm. in Wks. (1871) IV. 605 A peculiar season of contrition and repentance.
1858 J. Martineau Stud. Christianity 169 The entire moral value of contrition belongs to it as the sign of inner change of character from prior evil to succeeding good.
Did Trump meet Abbott’s true contrition test last night?
Here are Abbott’s three tweets since his true contrition tweet, but nothing since the debate.
God. The Cowboys. And beautiful Texas sunsets.
Sure, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, the Republican from the 23rd Congressional District, denounced Trump, who he had never endorsed, in more certain terms on Friday, but that was good for Hurd and of no consequence to Trump.
From Rice University political scientist Mark Jones
In some ways the tape and the widespread negative reaction to it among Republicans was manna from heaven for Hurd, since it allowed him to do what he needed to do to close off what was perhaps Gallego’s most prominent line of attack while minimizing any fallout among Republican voters in CD-23 given the cover that the scandal and the simultaneous withdrawal of endorsement by dozens of prominent Republicans provides.
If Texas Republicans currently supporting Trump were hoping that a contrite Donald Trump asking for forgiveness would provide them with some cover with his debate performance tonight, they likely went to sleep Sunday night disappointed.
At the same time, while Donald Trump is most likely not winning over many Texas voters tonight, it’s also not likely that Hillary Clinton is gaining the support of all that many either. Watching this debate, it isn’t hard to understand why these are the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history.
Overall, Abbott’s decision to endorse, but not take a prominent role in Trump’s Texas campaign, was a prescient one. It allows him more flexibility on his support for the Trump campaign than is the case for some of his GOP brethren such as Lt. Gov. Patrick.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz, who was reportedly, amid the recent frenzy, rethinking his belated endorsement of Trump, was left to tweet sour grapes that the mainstream media had not done his dirty work during the campaign to destroy Trump before he became the nominee for president who Cruz is, as of this writing, still supporting.
Here are some other takes on the debate from people I look to for wisdom.
From Kirby Goidel, Professor & Fellow, Public Policy Research Institute & Department of Communication, Texas A&M University
Debates are won (and lost) mostly on expectations. Donald Trump came into this campaign under assault and there was a real possibility that he would be overly aggressive and self-implode. The fact that he didn’t implode makes this a “win” for him. He did do a better job of getting the conversation to her emails, her record, and her status as a career politician. His supporters should be pleased. But he also opened up some lines of attack for the future, especially on taxes, on his difference of opinion with Mike Pence on Syria, and his threat to jail Hillary Clinton if elected. I am not sure that this has happened before in an American presidential election.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, did well enough but there was some expectation that she might score a knockout and effectively end the campaign. It is a silly expectation but the fact that she didn’t may lead some to conclude she “lost.” She came closest to connecting with audience members, especially with the question from the Muslim woman, and remained more fact-based and specific when it came to policy questions.
Given where the campaign is though Hillary Clinton didn’t need to score a knockout, she only needed to fight to a draw, which she did. She moves closer to the presidency. Trump held his own and may have put off calls for him to withdrawal but didn’t improve his overall position in the election and moved no closer to the presidency.
From Brandon Rottinghaus. Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Houston.
Trump seemed more in his element while Clinton seemed less comfortable until they started talking about policy. Despite the smoke still in the air over the audio leak, he animated his issues better tonight than in the first debate. Clinton seemed more warm and conversational but not when the attacks were flying. No one changed many minds, but Trump was able to put a tourniquet on his campaign’s bleeding.
Trump’s pivot from the leaked audio to ISIS’s crimes and the general state of the world looked less than contrite. The “it was locker room talk” defense didn’t hold much water. Clinton’s prosecutorial dismantling of Trump’s comments damaged him but only temporarily. The debate allowed him to change the subject after two full days of negative coverage about the leaked audio. As long as he didn’t repeat what he said, he was going to come out looking better than he went in.
Trump threw a haymaker with the Bill Clinton comments but Clinton didn’t respond in kind. Maybe she should have. Funneling people to her website likely didn’t feel satisfying enough for her supporters who wanted a forceful reaction from Secretary Clinton. In particular, she didn’t directly challenge the claims Trump made against Bill Clinton. This looked slightly tepid.
Texas Republicans’ punch card of expressing outrage over Trump is pretty much full at this point in the cycle. There wasn’t anything special tonight to demonstrate that they should increase the distance between them and Trump. Trump’s performance gives them cover to collectively pivot to conservative concerns over Obamacare, failure to beat ISIS, troubles with the Iran deal, and the need for tax cuts.
(1) Coverage in advance of this debate reduced expectations for Donald Trump. He came in under crisis and stepped over a low bar. If individuals come away believing he “won,” it is because he overcame these low expectations.
(2) Donald Trump stopped the bleeding. He used his time, not for policy specifics, but to get in some pointed attacks on Hillary Clinton. The question will be whether the bleeding has been stopped in time to save the patient (his campaign).
(3) Hillary Clinton was at her best discussing points of high contrast, particularly an inclusive America. Her response to questions about Muslims in America set a major contrast with Donald Trump. This served to set up a critique of Trump’s position on immigration.
(4) Hillary Clinton faltered on the response to the WikiLeaks emails. Her defense about describing Abraham Lincoln seemed forced and inauthentic, highlighting the weaknesses about her candidacy. The quick pivot she made to the Russians only served to highlight her circumspection.
(5) Donald Trump was at his best when he critiqued Clinton on her emails and WikiLeaks. He came prepared with attacks that highlight Clinton’s main weaknesses, particularly concerns about trust.
(6) Donald Trump’s answers to the unearthed videos were not as polished or prepared as I anticipated. He denied what he admitted to in the video and then quickly pivoted to an attack on Clinton. Because this occurred in the first 15 minutes of the debate, it may have deflated any gains he made later in the debate.
From Brendan Steinhauser, Partner, Steinhauser Strategies. Republican consultant and strategist, Austin, and proudly #NeverTrump.
- Overall, I don’t think this changes the overall direction of the election. Trump survived to fight another day, and even landed some punches against Clinton. His “You would be in jail” line will make his supporters happy, but how will independents and swing voters feel about it? That’s a crucial question.
- Trump performed better than he did during the first debate. Clinton could have done better, but she was probably happy to fight to a draw. She’s up in the polls nationally, and in most of the swing states. So she benefits from the current trajectory of the campaign.
- While Trump satisfied his base in this debate, the question is did he expand his supporters, and attract new voters tonight in the swing states? He has to do that in order to have a chance of winning the election.
- I am not surprised that the Trump tape was only discussed for a few minutes during the debate. Trump didn’t want to talk about it, and Clinton knew that she didn’t have to pile on, given the enormous amount of media coverage that it has gotten in the last couple of days.
- It was clear to me that Clinton was trying to appeal to Republicans and moderates tonight with some of her answers. She mentioned working closely with George W. Bush on post 911 recover efforts, and made a comment about how Trump’s Republican supporters are rescinding their endorsements. I think she’s trying to win over suburban Republicans in states like Ohio and Florida.
And from Jennifer Mercieca. Aggie Agora Director, Associate Professor, Department of Communication, Texas A&M University, who is writing a book on Trump’s demao
I think Trump’s supporters will be happy with his performance tonight. He was aggressive, he went after Clinton on all of the issues that they would want him to, and did not seem cartoonish (like he did in the first debate). I thought that his best answer of the night was his last answer: actually answered the question and didn’t quibble.* Clearly part of his strategy tonight was to continue to indict the moderators as part of the mainstream media conspiracy against him. His every answer was an indictment of Clinton’s character and judgment, it was quite overwhelming and I think that he expressed many of the reasons why his supporters despise her so vehemently. His affect was so flat throughout the debate, yet he said so many vile things and made so many accusations, I found it an odd disjuncture.
Clinton did a good job of trying to maintain decorum, answer Trump’s accusations, and seem prepared for office. I thought that she had a good response to his criticism that she had spent 30 years in office and accomplished nothing, saying that she is quite proud of her record in office and listing her achievements. I also thought that she had a solid answer on the Wikileaks thing about having different public and private policies–invoking Lincoln–and saying that it was good presidential leadership (Jeremy Bentham calls that “eulogistic covering,” which is a phrase I quite like). She was in a tough spot with trying to fact check him and also answer the questions, I thought that she did a fair job at it, but not great. I liked that she pointed out the game of “distraction” or his use of red herrings, throughout the debate. Trump tried to get her to break, he tried as hard as he could to troll her and she remained calm and firm. She kept her composure and responded rationally. I think that she has to be given credit for that difficult task.
I think that the news tonight was that Trump seemed to admit to not paying taxes and taking the $913 billion deduction. He tried to turn it on Clinton by saying that her donors (and cronies?) would also take that deduction and that she was in the Senate and did nothing to stop those kinds of tax breaks. Her response was that senators don’t get to control that and that there was a Republican in the White House at that time. Seemed like the best exchange of the night to me.
*Oh, and what was that last question?
MARTHA RADDATZ: We’ve sneaked in one more question, and it comes from Karl Becker.
QUESTION: Good evening. My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?
RADDATZ: Mr. Trump, would you like to go first?
CLINTON: Well, I certainly will, because I think that’s a very fair and important question. Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that. And I think that is something that as a mother and a grandmother is very important to me.
So I believe that this election has become in part so — so conflict-oriented, so intense because there’s a lot at stake. This is not an ordinary time, and this is not an ordinary election. We are going to be choosing a president who will set policy for not just four or eight years, but because of some of the important decisions we have to make here at home and around the world, from the Supreme Court to energy and so much else, and so there is a lot at stake. It’s one of the most consequential elections that we’ve had.
And that’s why I’ve tried to put forth specific policies and plans, trying to get it off of the personal and put it on to what it is I want to do as president. And that’s why I hope people will check on that for themselves so that they can see that, yes, I’ve spent 30 years, actually maybe a little more, working to help kids and families. And I want to take all that experience to the White House and do that every single day.
RADDATZ: Mr. Trump?
TRUMP: Well, I consider her statement about my children to be a very nice compliment. I don’t know if it was meant to be a compliment, but it is a great — I’m very proud of my children. And they’ve done a wonderful job, and they’ve been wonderful, wonderful kids. So I consider that a compliment.
I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But she does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. And I consider that to be a very good trait.
RADDATZ: Thanks to both of you.
COOPER: We want to thank both the candidates. We want to thank the university here. This concludes the town hall meeting. Our thanks to the candidates, the commission, Washington University, and to everybody who watched.
RADDATZ: Please tune in on October 19th for the final presidential debate that will take place at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Good night, everyone.
Well, apart from the odd fact that Clinton replied, Well, I certainly will, when Raddatz asked, Mr. Trump, would you like to go first?, that was a pleasant coda to an otherwise unpleasant if mesmerizing night.