The final question of Sunday night’s presidential faceoff came as a relief: Can you name one positive thing that you respect in one another? an audience member asked.
It’s one of the most clichéd political-debate questions in the book. But both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were able to answer – with apparent sincerity.
“His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Mr. Trump took the compliment, and offered one in return. “She does fight hard, and she doesn't quit, and she doesn't give up,” he said. “And I consider that to be a very good trait.”
Then the two shook hands. They had pointedly declined to do so at the start of a 90-minute debate that quickly descended into a mud-bath of negativity. Fully one-third of the debate had passed before the discussion turned to policy.
But there was value in the spectacle. Foremost, viewers learned that Trump isn’t getting out of this race. After the release Friday of a shocking 2005 video of the celebrity billionaire bragging in lewd terms about his sexually aggressive approach to women, dozens of Republican politicians abandoned him. Speculation raged over how he could be replaced on the GOP ticket. Running mate Mike Pence, a born-again Christian, declined to defend him.
And just as Trump admires Clinton’s tenacity, he showed Sunday that he, too, doesn’t give up. In fact, he may have learned from another master of political survival, former President Bill Clinton, that when you’re caught red-handed, you don’t slink away in shame. You power through, and stay on the attack.
Hillary tries to 'go high'
Trump went so far as to bring three women who had accused the former president of sexual abuse to the debate, plus a woman who had allegedly been raped by a man whom Hillary Clinton had defended in court. Hours before the debate, Trump held a press conference with the four women.
Trump has sought to portray Mrs. Clinton as an enabler of her husband’s sexual transgressions, for trying to discredit his accusers.
Trump also made up for missed opportunities of the first debate, pounding on Clinton on a range of vulnerabilities: her 33,000 deleted emails; the Benghazi tragedy late in her tenure as secretary of State; her labeling Trump’s supporters as “deplorables”; Wikileaks’ purported revelation of a private Clinton speech in which she diverged from her public position on US borders.
Clinton let a lot of the attacks slide, and wrapped herself in the mantle of the most popular figure in the Obama White House: the first lady.
“I am reminded of what my friend, Michelle Obama, advised us all: When they go low, you go high,” Clinton said.
Though Clinton did wrap herself in the mantle of another historic American, Abraham Lincoln, in defending her private comments. She referenced the movie “Lincoln,” and its portrayal of the 16th president as he maneuvered through Congress to abolish slavery.
Trump jumped on her Wikileaks defense with his best comeback of the night. “Now she's blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln,” he said.
At the start of the evening, Trump seemed a bit unsure of himself. He had just weathered the worst two days of his campaign, a turn that for some spelled the effective end of his shot at the presidency. But as the evening wore on, he regained some of his usual swagger, and paced the stage like a caged lion, almost stalking Clinton.
A 'status quo' debate?
Trump clearly impressed his most important audience – his would-be vice president, Governor Pence of Indiana – even after he appeared to throw Pence under the bus by disagreeing with him on Syria policy.
“Congrats to my running mate @realDonaldTrump on a big debate win! Proud to stand with you as we #MAGA,” Pence tweeted, using the hashtag for “Make America Great Again.”
Political analysts saw Trump’s performance as solidifying his support among voters who are already with him, but not doing anything to build on that, if that was even possible.
“Trump playing to his base. Reinforcing every voter who was already for him. 40% of the vote isn’t going to be enough,” tweeted Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.
In their post-debate assessment, the analysts at Sabato’s Crystal Ball surmised that the debate had a “status quo” feel to it. Clinton went in having risen to a solid lead in polls, after Trump’s meltdown during and after the last debate, and she played it cautious Sunday night.
But for the Republican establishment, there’s nothing “status quo” about having Trump as its standard-bearer. The party is in crisis, and with its presidential nominee severely damaged, it faces the possibility of major casualties in other races this fall – starting with losses of Senate seats that could cost the party control of that chamber.
The Republican National Committee has scheduled a conference call for its members at 5 p.m. Monday. The meeting has no set agenda, but there’s speculation that the RNC may divert resources away from Trump and toward down-ballot candidates, reports Politico.
Party leaders “find themselves in a tough spot because there has always been more resistance to Trump among the party leadership than the rank and file,” write Kyle Kondik, Larry Sabato, and Geoffrey Skelley of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
But for the main show, Trump vs. Clinton, there’s hope that the worst may have passed. Sunday night’s debate was a big mud-dump, but maybe the candidates feel they did what they needed to do and can move on. Maybe, having ended the evening with expressions of respect for one another – and a handshake – Trump and Clinton in their last debate, Oct. 19, can show the world that America’s politics isn’t totally broken.