Monday, October 10, 2016

Moving the Chains

Okay, so she didn't "finish him off," as I implored her to do. Why? You'd have to ask her. I thought she should've gone for his jugular. He was badly wounded and his campaign was hanging on by a thread. By any and all accounts, she could've wrapped up the election last night and she didn't. Only time will tell if that ends up boomeranging on her.

My overall first impression of her performance was she was good but hardly dominating, at least not nearly as dominating as her performance in the first debate. Her only blemish was her answer to the Wikileaks email about her having a private and public position. Even I thought the Abraham Lincoln reference was weak. You don't give your opponent that kind of a layup in a debate. Trump, for his part, was better in this debate than the first, but that's not saying much, given how unhinged he was that night.

So who won? If we judge these debates based on the all-important criteria of who scored better with undecided voters, then I'd give the decision to Clinton. Trump's decision to go gutter might've been popular with his base, but apart from the red meat he flung at them, I don't think he did anything to move those undecided voters off the fence. If anything, he might've pushed a few Clinton's way.

Think about it. At one point Trump actually said that if he became president, he would appoint a special prosecutor with the express purpose of jailing Clinton. For the first time in the history of this country we have the nominee of a major political party proposing jailing his opponent. That sort of thing goes on in dictatorships, not democracies. Small wonder he's enamored of Putin.

While that was the low point in the debate, it was by no means the only scar on the evening. One particularly bad moment for Trump occurred early in the debate when he was asked to comment on the leaked video of him bragging about sexually assaulting a married woman. His insistence that what he said was simply locker room talk I can assure you won't win him many votes among suburban women - the constituency he desperately needs to make inroads with in order to win the White House.

And then there was the sight of four women, three of whom have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, being used as pawns by Trump. Besides being beneath contempt, it wasn't a particularly smart move on his part and for the following reasons: one, Bill isn't on the ticket, Hillary is; two, using the past sins of the spouse of your opponent as an excuse for your own is lame even for Trump; three, it has the unintended consequence of actually making Hillary look more sympathetic, especially in the eyes of married women, and lastly, the last time Republicans went after Bill and Hillary in this manner, it didn't go well for them. In fact, they lost seats in the '98 midterms.

But I think there were two moments in this debate where Clinton may have done herself a lot of good. The first one came on the opening question from a member of the audience who expressed concern about the divisive nature of the campaign and wanted to know if she felt she was "modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today's youth." I thought Clinton's answer was particular effective. She talked about "celebrating our diversity" and "working together" to be the president of "all Americans." Trump replied that he agreed with her and then spent the next two minutes contradicting himself.

The other moment came when a Muslim woman asked both candidates about the growing Islamophobia in America. While Clinton I thought did a good job trying to allay her fears by pointing out that we've had Muslims in this country since George Washington was president and that scapegoating and banning them would only play into the hands of the extremists, Trump proved that her concerns are valid. He actually responded to a question about Islamophobia by being Islamophobic.

My conclusion is that this debate was not a game changer and that is bad news for Trump. Yes, he was more aggressive and put Clinton on the defensive, but apart from a few fleeting moments, he was unfocused and all over the place. He never put the video issue to bed, nor did he make a convincing case to undecided voters that he is the better choice in November.

Clinton, for her part, I thought was smarter in her approach. Like a good football team with the lead, she protected the ball and moved the chains to get enough first downs to run out the clock. Trump spent most of the evening trying to strip the ball from her, but was unsuccessful. No, she didn't score the knockout punch we all wanted, but she kept Trump off the scoreboard. And in football, they call that a win.

As for the polls, my gut tells me they will stay pretty much where they are, which means Hillary will still hold a solid lead in the electoral college when the dust settles. She played not to lose and her measured and mature responses proved a stark contrast to the otherwise loose canon she shared the debate stage with last night. And, for now, that will have to suffice.

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