Who Won the Second Debate?

Trump outperformed expectations, but he can’t bury his tape scandal — leaving us with no winner.

Donald Trump’s performance at the second debate was much better than I expected, having seen his first debate performance. After video of his lewd, predatory comments about women was released by the Washington Post, the Trump campaign has been in a downward spiral. Well,…it already was. But the video was thought by many to be the nail in the coffin for his campaign. This debate didn’t confirm that impression. Or at least it didn’t yet.

The second debate was going to happen with Trump’s video scandal in the background, making him vulnerable to attack. Everyone expected the video scandal to destroy him in the second debate since questions about it were inexorably going to come up. They did. But before the debate, Trump employed a despicable deflection tactic that may have been slightly cleverer than I originally thought: utilizing Bill Clinton’s sexual assault and rape accusers to keep attention on the Clintons. He held a press conference with the women before the debate and even brought them into the debate hall.

This tactic looked absolutely ridiculous at first glance (and it was!), but it may have worked in Trump’s favor up to a point. Throughout the night, Hillary Clinton looked relatively rattled. She didn’t have the same confidence that she exuded in the first debate. Instead she looked slightly beaten down and defeated. And one can’t help but feel that she was rattled by Trump’s tactics. Of course that doesn’t mean that she actually was.

But without a doubt, she didn’t perform to expectations given the political gift that she had been given within the 48 hours or so prior to the debate. She failed to challenge Trump’s claims on issues several times. Instead she occasionally made absurd appeals to fact-checkers when she should have been correcting him herself (she also did this in the first debate). In failing to do this, Clinton failed to bury Trump. When Trump’s video was brought up, she didn’t do a great job of attacking him on it. Although, she probably didn’t need to. Trump didn’t help himself by calling his disgusting comments “locker room talk.” Nor did he help himself by basically admitting that he pays nothing in federal income taxes.

Due to the nature of Trump’s implosion, it seems that Clinton still had an edge. Polling taken after the debate showed that most people believed that Clinton had won the night. Yet by watching the debate, you wouldn’t immediately get that impression — or at least I didn’t. Trump — while he lied throughout the course of the debate — sounded more in command of the facts than Clinton did. But it could be that Trump’s scare tactic, while it may have been slightly smarter strategically than I originally thought, was still ridiculous to most people. On stage, Trump looked like a bully. He often stood behind Clinton with an angry look on his face the whole time.

I’m no defender of the Clintons. However, Trump’s deflection stunt was clearly an act of desperation. Regardless of whatever Bill Clinton did back in the day (even regardless of whether or not he raped Juanita Broaddrick), Trump’s video is of more political salience to the public at this moment. The public is aware of Clinton’s old scandals and sexual misconduct. Trump’s video, on the other hand, is new to most people (although not surprising) and he’s running for president. Bill Clinton isn’t; his wife is. By all standards, Trump’s tactic was a new low in American politics, which probably helps explain the polling in Hillary Clinton’s favor.

The truth is that this second debate didn’t really matter that much. Trump did well enough to keep some more Republicans from defecting from the imminently crashing Trump Train. But that video is still looming in the minds of Americans everywhere. It will haunt Trump’s campaign until this election is over. As it should. Trump’s misogyny is unacceptable, immoral, and if he did what he said he did to women in that video (“grab ’em by the p****”), then he is a sexual predator. And his campaign will end exactly as it deserves to.