That was the ultimate tweet about the debate, from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI): "This is now indistinguishable from SHL." The satirical show, "Saturday Night Live," had just done a hilarious skit about the debate. A close second characterization was from pundit Howard Fineman, who wrote: "[Trump] swung as hard as he could -- and knocked himself out."
Folks, I've spent most of Monday trying to analyze and condense what we saw Sunday night. Commentary and new stuff keeps coming out faster than I can put it all together. So now with those quotes to start this off, I'll just put out some points that stand out and not try to organize it into a coherent narrative.
1. Trump tried to preempt any sense of decorum, and create a distraction from his own disastrous troubles, by staging an invitation only press conference two hours before the debate with four women who claim to have been sexually misused by Bill Clinton years ago (all old news), plus one woman who was apparently actually raped when she was 12 years old -- but not by Bill Clinton. They included her because Hillary Clinton, as a young attorney back then, was the court-appointed public defender of the man charged with the rape. The woman says that Hillary put her through hell in the process (I suppose in the depositions). As I understand it, they reached a plea bargain and never went to trial. Of course, it's very difficult for a rape victim to testify about what happened to them; but fact checkers have said that it was not true that Clinton "laughed off the victim," as Trump has claimed.
Further, they brought these women in (paid their travel expenses, of course) and seated them in prominent places in the audience. Rudi Giuliani told the Washington Post that the Trump campaign had planned to have the four women come in with the Trump family and sit in the family box, which would mean a confrontation with Bill Clinton -- to see if he would shake hands with the women. But, Giuliani said, debate officials told the Trump campaign that "security would throw them out" if they went ahead with the plot. So they brought them in before the spouses came in, and had daughter Tiffany Trump and a sister-in-law sit with them, still in a prominent spot that tv cameras kept panning to.
2. This plan has the fingerprints of Trump's sleezy advisers all over it: Stephen Bannon (of Breitbart News infamy) who is now campaign CEO; David Bossie (who has made a career out of creating conspiracy theories and digging up dirt about the Clintons) is now a senior adviser to the Trump campaign; and informal advisers Roger Ailes (who was forced out at FoxNews for sexual harassment of women) and the odious Roger Stone (who never saw a conspiracy theory he didn't like). Their strategy appears to have been: shrug off the damaging tape as "locker room talk" and pivot to attack Hillary Clinton on every bit of read meat distortion and lie that his rabid anti-Clinton base craves to hear thrown at her. And he did give them that, saying at one point that if he were president, “you’d be in jail.” You could almost hear the echoes of them shouting "Lock her up !!"
3. Nothing really stuck. Clinton was composed, maybe not quite as comfortable as the first debate, but admirably unflappable given the circumstances; she gave as good (or bad) as she got, and looked presidential the whole time. Her battle plan was apparently to pivot away from detailed response to his attacks and to let him keep talking and, as Fineman said above, "knock himself out." She has scored as the winner in every poll I have seen, other than those that were obviously of partisan Trump supporters.
4. In contrast, Trump was an angry, menacing presence on stage: roaming around in the background as she was talking, at one point seeming from my tv angle to be standing closely behind her and scowling. He hit her with direct insults, including that he would have her put in jail. Which prompted a strong tweeted rebuke from former Attorney General Eric Holder: "Be afraid of any candidate who says he will order DOJ/FBI to act on his command. This is dangerous. In the USA we do not threaten to jail political opponents. Trump said he would. He is promising to abuse the power of the office."
5. There were two audience questions that were especially suited to the candidates showing how they could relate to minority citizens with empathy. One was a Muslim woman who asked how they would combat Islamophobia; the other was a black man who asked both candidates about their "devotion" to the needs of all citizens. Clinton was excellent in her answers, being both warm and empathic, as well as talking about policy. Trump immediately pivoted on both questions to talking negatively about their communities: blaming Muslims for not reporting suspicious activity and going immediately to answering the black man by talking about poverty and "inner cities," as though that's the only way he can conceive of black people.
6. Prodded by moderators and by Clinton, Trump more or less made two admissions: He has not in fact paid federal income tax for many years; and, to Anderson Cooper's persistent questioning about the tape, Trump finally answered the question of whether it was all just talk or whether he has done what he was talking about: "No, I haven't." Which prompted Monday headlines: "Many women say otherwise."
7. In contrast to the first debate, there actually was a little discussion of difference in policy: on health care, on taxes, on Syria. Trump seemed to have a little more familiarity about specifics than before, but he also revealed his lack of in depth knowledge about all these important areas. Clinton was crisp and concise and did not sound overly wonkish.
7. And then a final audience question: Can you say something positive you respect about your opponent? Martha Raddich said, "Mr. Trump, would you like to go first?" Trump did not respond but turned and looked at Clinton. She said, "Well, I certainly will. I respect his children. . . [who] are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald." Trump seemed pleased and said he considered it a compliment. Then he praised her perseverance. "She doesn't quit, she doesn't give up. . . . She's a fighter -- I disagree with much of what she's fighting for. I disagree with her judgment in many cases. . . . But she doesn't give up. I consider that to be a very good trait."
With that, the debate was over. And then the spin began.
Trump did what he needed to do to fire up his base. But that's all. His boorish display of misogyny is unlikely to have appealed to any still-wavering moderate voters or attracted any new ones. Merely his menacing stalking around the stage would reinforce the impression of him as a predator -- with a woman as his victim. Whether Clinton gained any new votes remains to be seen on post-debate polls. But she was doing just fine, going in. And she certainly did nothing to lose any votes.