Donald Trump came into the debate with his campaign in deep trouble – he didn’t improve his situation. After having had the worst three weeks of his in entire campaign, Trump came out swinging hard, very hard. He called Hillary Clinton a “liar”, threatened her with a special prosecutor if he becomes president and told her she belongs in jail. At one point he said: “She has tremendous hate in her heart.”
This is a language never heard in modern American politics on live television and rather reminded many viewers of banana republics or worse. Trump bulldozed through the debate which was supposed to be a town hall format focused on undecided voters in the audience. But the audience was quickly sidelined with their faces showing signs of being terrified by what they were witnessing.
“Red and bloody meat”
Trump’s problem: he is behind in the polls and he needed to convince Democrats and Independents to vote for him. But instead his performance consisted merely of throwing red and bloody meat to his core supporters who hate Clinton anyway. It is doubtful that Trump and his stern demeanor and prowling stage presence will help him broaden that voting base in a way that would help him catch up to Clinton’s lead in battleground states and in the national picture.
Hillary Clinton’s strategy (again): let Trump be Trump. Like in the first debate, Clinton reacted to Trump’s rants and insults with patience and a stoic face. She kept her cool and never showed signs of stress because of Trump’s aggressiveness. Some of her supporters said after the debate that she could have been more forceful in defending her record and her policies. But Clinton played it safe without showing signs of over-confidence. “If you are solidly in the lead, you don’t stop your opponent from committing political suicide”, an analyst commented.
Trump had seen his poll numbers begin to slide after a weak and rambling performance during the first debate in late September. Now, however, Trump is in worse shape due to the release of a 2005 video in which Trump bragged about groping women and sexually assaulting them. It set off a cascade of criticism from Trump’s fellow Republicans and led dozens of them to formally renounce the party’s nominee.
Against this backdrop, Clinton did not need to go after Trump, his fellow Republicans already did it. The question, of course, is whether such a strategy may not be too passive. But as long as she is on track to win this election – and this is what she believes – she just needs to count down the days until November 8.
Democracy the loser?
Who lost the debate? The American people. The once sacred tradition of a presidential debate where candidates typically trade barbs over their vision of the country’s future, exploded into something quite chilling. Americans are proud of their constitutions, their political institutions and their political competitions that are supposed to bring out the best of candidates. But this debate night left many Americans embarrassed, if not insulted.
Never before in America has a TV audience been witnessed such constant vile comments, rants and empty rhetoric, courtesy of the Republican nominee. Trump was aggressive when he spoke and even threatening when he didn’t. He paced the stage for much of the debate, sometimes getting dangerously close to Clinton’s space. He frequently interrupted Clinton and had trouble standing still while she spoke, sometimes appearing in her camera shot.
It was part of a performance from Trump that put to rest the question of whether Trump is fit for the presidency. Nobody appeared more aware of that reality than Trump, whose strategy seemed to be to extract as much public humiliation from Clinton as he could, rather than to win the election. If he performs like this in the third debate next week, it will effectively be game over for him.