It was clear going into the second presidential debate that this would be no ordinary political event. This would be huge. It would be the first time Donald Trump would have to defend his hot mic comments bragging about sexual assault in front of a hostile opposing candidate and tough moderators. It would be the defining moment of the election, a glorious train wreck. It would be “whatever the opposite of the moon landing is.”
And oh, dear reader, it was. It really, really was. It wasn’t like some past bombshell debates, with one catastrophic or shocking moment that overshadowed the rest. It was instead a continual disaster for Trump, a slow-boiling catastrophe with flare-ups and temper tantrums from the candidate but an enviable, consistent stream of madness.
Trump lost, for sure — and you’ll read more about that in a second. But here’s who else fell behind tonight, and who came up ahead.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
Clinton had one task in the debate: Do no harm. She’s ahead in the polls. Trump just got hit with the worst scandal of the campaign so far. His elite Republican support is rapidly abandoning him. She just needs to not screw it up and let Trump continue to dig his own grave.
She did that, and then some. She continued her effective strategy from the first debate of maintaining total discipline: never interrupting, never raising her voice, never getting remotely agitated. The point is to draw a contrast from Trump’s constantly flaring temper and clear inability to abide by basic debate rules, and it was effective.
She even got in some solid burns amid Trump’s meltdowns:
COOPER: Please allow her to respond. She didn't talk while you talked.
CLINTON: Yes, that's true, I didn't in the first debate and I'm going to try not to in this debate, because I'd like to get to the questions.
TRUMP: Get off this question.
CLINTON: Okay, Donald, I know you're into big diversion tonight, anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it's exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you.
The debate was less full of obvious bait Clinton wanted Trump to take than the first one; she’s further ahead now and knows she doesn’t need that kind of knockout win again. But needling him for elite Republicans’ abandonment was a nice, and smart, moment.
But perhaps the most crucial aspect of Clinton’s performance that succeeded was her defense of her Wall Street speech remarks leaked by WikiLeaks, which suggested that she thought presidents should behave differently in public and private. This is a potentially very harmful story for Clinton that, to her great fortune, came out at the same time as the even more harmful Trump tapes. But it is sure to come up repeatedly as the campaign enters its final stage.
Her answer effectively pivoted from the statements to the source of the hack, which is believed by many (including the US government) to be connected to the Russian government, which is in turn thought to be backing Trump (who has reciprocated with overtly pro-Kremlin rhetoric).
“We have never in the history of our country been in a situation where an adversary, a foreign power, is working so hard to influence the outcome of the election,” she declared. “And believe me, they're not doing it to get me elected. They're doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump. Now, maybe it’s because he has praised Putin, maybe because he says he agrees with a lot of what Putin wants to do, maybe because he wants to do business in Moscow, I don't know the reasons.”
This is very clever jujitsu, in that it’s genuinely on topic — it matters where the leaks came from! — and pivots the issue from Clinton’s apparent belief in the value of some light duplicity in politics to the fact that the Russian government is backing Trump, a much more serious charge and one that Trump was forced to respond to.
Winner: Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz
Moderating: It’s a tough business. You have to hold the candidates accountable, get them to answer questions, fact-check them where appropriate, and cover a vast array of topics lest you prompt fury by leaving something out.
Raddatz and Cooper did not turn in a perfect performance. They did not do as much fact-checking as Trump clearly requires (about which more in a minute). But they did do something equally important: They forced him to answer the actual questions presented to him. They presented those questions in clear, stark terms. And they did not get discouraged when Trump tried to work the refs and accused them of being biased toward Clinton. They kept on pressing.
Cooper set the tone early with his question on Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comments. “You called what you said locker room banter — kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals,” he said. “That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women.” Cooper did not have to do that. A lesser moderate wouldn’t have done that. But Cooper instead insisted that Trump confront the clear meaning of his words on the tape. And when Trump, inevitably, tried to bob and weave to escape the question, Cooper did not let him:
COOPER: For the record, are you saying what you said on the bus 11 years ago, that you did not kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?
TRUMP: I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.
COOPER: So you're saying you never did that.
TRUMP: I said things that frankly, you hear these things. And I was embarrassed by it. But I have tremendous respect for women.
COOPER: Have you ever done those things?
TRUMP: No, I have not. I will tell you that I'm going the make our country safe…
Trump kept trying to evade and Cooper kept repeating the question until Trump gave some semblance of an answer. And by dragging it out, he increased the power of the exchange. Trump did not want to clearly tell the American people he had never assaulted women. That should be an easy thing for a presidential candidate. That it wasn’t for Trump was massively revealing.
Raddatz also deserves credit for not letting Trump bullshit on his proposal for a ban on Muslims entering the US. Trump tried to say it had “morphed” into “extreme vetting.” That is about the vaguest, weirdest answer someone could give, and Raddatz called him on it:
TRUMP: The Muslim ban is something that in some form has morphed into an extreme vetting. From certain areas of the world. Hillary Clinton wants to allow —
RADDATZ: And why did it morph into that? Answer the question. Do you still believe —
TRUMP: Why don't you interrupt her?
RADDATZ: Would you please explain whether or not the ban still stands?
TRUMP: It's called extreme vetting. We are going to areas like Syria. Where they're coming in by the tens of thousands because of Barack Obama. And Hillary Clinton wants to allow a 550 percent increase over Obama.
Trump didn’t give as clear an answer as he did to Cooper. But his dodging was nonetheless revealing.
Trump, naturally, objected to being asked to answer questions like a normal human being. “Nice, one on three,” he declared at one point, insinuating that the moderators were on Clinton’s side. "It's funny, she went over a minute over and you don't stop her. When I go one second over…" he whined later on. Raddatz snapped back clearly: "You have had many answers."
It’s really hard to have that kind of resolve when a major candidate for president is yelling at you on national television. But Raddatz did. She and Cooper didn’t back down, and they insisted that Trump actually answer questions. That counts for a lot.
Winner: Bashar al-Assad
Few currently living people have as much blood on their hands as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. When protests against his despotism sprouted up in the wake of Arab Spring in 2011, he cracked down violently, sparking a civil war that has lasted five years, killed some 430,000 people, and created nearly 5 million refugees.
Assad has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs to indiscriminately massacre civilians. He is on the verge of retaking the rebel bastion Aleppo, and he and the allied Russian air force have killed hundreds already. They will kill still more if and when Aleppo falls.
Reasonable people can disagree on the best US policy response to the carnage in Syria. But there can be no doubt that Assad bears ultimate responsibility for it, and is guilty of heinous war crimes.
So it was striking to hear a major US presidential candidate vocally defend Assad before a national TV audience. “One thing I have to say. I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy,” Trump declared. One could be forgiven for thinking “I don’t like Assad at all” to be a rather weak caveat when it precedes praise for the dictator’s terrorist-killing skills.
Raddatz, to her great credit, was taken aback by this. “I want to remind you what your running mate said,” she said, recalling the vice presidential debate last Tuesday. “He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and if Russia continues to be involved in airstrikes along with the Syrian government forces of Assad, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime.”
Trump, amazingly, did not try to reconcile his and Mike Pence’s positions. He instead just threw his running mate under the bus. "He and I haven't spoken and I disagree," he clarified. "Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS."
Note, this is all in response to a question about what Trump would do to ameliorate the slaughter in Aleppo. ISIS does not control Aleppo; the anti-ISIS Syrian rebels, the ones with which the US is tentatively allied, do. The Russian/Syrian assault on Aleppo does nothing to weaken ISIS. And yet Trump’s response in the face of mass human suffering is, “Well, they fight ISIS, so I’m with Syria.” He offered nothing for the civilians of Aleppo, nothing but praise for the man coming to kill them.
One might’ve expected the assault on Aleppo to mark the end of contrarian “maybe we should tentatively ally with Assad” takes in US foreign policy discussion. The human cost was clearly too great. Yet instead, the take got its highest-profile American exponent to date. That’s a pretty big win for Assad, even with Trump down in the polls. His odds of getting a friendly US regime increased tonight.
Loser: Donald Trump
There is no better illustration of the soft bigotry of low expectations than the fact that several smart, normally spot-on political observers saw the same debate as everyone else and declared that Donald Trump won. And in some narrow stylistic sense, he did bring more energy and confidence than he did in his weak first debate.
But fundamentally, this was a debate that spent much if not most of its running time focused on two themes: a) Donald Trump is a lecherous, potentially abusive threat to women, and b) Donald Trump is a skeevy tax evader. Neither of those are good looks for him. It’s like if Hillary Clinton got to personally set the agenda for the debate, except the agenda was set by Trump’s own recently revealed actions.
The best case that Trump won has nothing to do with voters and everything to do with Republican elites. There’s a decent argument to be made that Trump, by not, like, literally hurling obscenities for 90 minutes, showed a basic competence and an ability to participate in the normal activities of a presidential candidate, and stanched the bleeding among Republican members of Congress who were abandoning him in light of the tape released on Friday.
That may or may not be true; you can imagine the debate simply changing the topic from the tapes in a way that lets, say, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell continue to quietly support Trump and eases up on the pressure they face to abandon him.
But the fact of the matter is that Trump was losing even before the tape came out, and even if the saga ends now, the tape release could very possibly cause permanent damage all the same. The issue from an electoral standpoint always had less to do with elite Republican opinion and more to do with the possibility that the comments could depress Republican turnout, especially among women. That could still be true. And even if it isn’t, Trump was behind to start.
Trump needs to do something dramatic to shift the odds of the election in his favor over the next month or so, and he’s running out of time. One could’ve imagined a truly stellar debate performance that did that. This wasn’t it.
As good as Cooper and Raddatz were at keeping the candidates on topic and forcing them to answer questions, they were somewhat weaker at forcing them — and specifically Trump — to stick strictly to the facts.
For instance, when Trump said this: “First of all, Captain Khan is an American hero, and if I were president at this time, he would be alive today, because unlike her, who voted for the war without knowing what she was doing, I would not have had our people in Iraq. Iraq was disaster. So he would have been alive today.”
Trump immediately followed this up by saying his belief in a Muslim ban had “morphed,” something on which Raddatz rightfully pushed him. But she said nothing about the fact that Trump was taking credit for having hypothetically saved the life of a fallen soldier from Iraq by preventing the war. That’s offensive on a whole variety of levels, but it’s also premised on a lie. Trump supported the war. He’s on tape. It’s recorded. This is not ambiguous.
And yet it got no censure from the moderators. Clinton did rebut the charge in her answer, but part of the reason we have moderators is so viewers can get clear statements of what is opinion and what is fact. The debunking of Trump Clinton offered could thus have come across as yet more spin, not as an objective newscaster setting the facts straight.
Same when Trump absurdly claimed that Clinton wants to preserve the carried interest loophole, which lets hedge fund managers claim a lower tax rate than salaried employees. Clinton not only wants to get rid of the loophole, she’s done Trump one better by proposing a plan to get rid of it through executive action. So unlike him, she’s essentially promising she’ll dump it, with or without Congress. She’s a stronger opponent of this policy, and has been for years.
As for Cooper and Raddatz … nothing. Nada. They did nothing to call Trump on this lie.
Being a debate moderator is hard, no doubt. But viewers are better served when moderators try to aggressively challenge clear falsehoods by candidates. And the moderators this time could’ve done a lot better on that front.