The most spontaneous moment of Sunday’s debate came after Hillary Clinton outrageously enlisted the memory of Abraham Lincoln to explain away her penchant for lying. Trump had the presence of mind to expose her gall in turning “Honest Abe” into a dishonest pol like her. As he delivered that blow, Hillary’s frozen smile turned sour — a look she gave off during much of the evening.
It was a night of surprises, starting with Trump’s pre-debate press conference featuring women abused by Bill Clinton (along with a lesser known woman, Kathy Shelton, whose rapist Hillary defended). “Mr. Trump may have said some bad words,” Juanita Broaddrick said during it. “But Bill Clinton raped me. And Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison.” Kathy Shelton is opposing Hillary because she represented the man who raped her and was caught on tape laughing about how she got him a light sentence despite knowing of his guilt. That tape recording — in which Hillary brags about her successful defense of the rapist — has received little to no attention from the media.
That press conference — and the placement of the women in the audience — may have rattled Hillary and muted her attacks on what she calls his “misogyny.” Trump’s taped remarks ended up playing a minor role in the debate. With his victims peering down on him, Bill Clinton, sitting near the stage, looked a bit stricken and uncomfortable.
Trump’s decision to go on offense served him well. Hillary, perhaps fearing that an extended attack on Trump’s lack of fitness owing to his taped remarks could backfire on her and lead to more discussion of her husband, didn’t revisit the issue after the opening moments of the debate. She tried to broaden her attacks but not very effectively. Many of her lines landed with a thud. After the debate, Fox News showed a Frank Luntz focus group of undecideds in which a majority of the participants appeared unmoved by Hillary’s stale rhetoric. A surprised Luntz concluded from his sample that Trump’s performance may have revived his campaign.
Hillary was nothing if not the voice of the failed status quo. While Trump went on offense, she tried to play out the clock by reciting fuzzy policy boilerplate. Trump’s quick retorts seemed to knock her off stride, especially when he changed the conversation from his gaffes to her crimes and promised to prosecute her should he win. That wiped a complacent look off her face. Then when she lamely said that it is good Trump isn’t in charge of the “law,” he startled her by shooting back, “Because you would be in jail,” which elicited cheers from the crowd.
Her explanation for the deleted emails was characteristically feeble. Several times she was reduced to saying nothing more than “what he just said is not true,” as if that sufficed as an answer. Trust me, was her essential message. But as Trump pointed out, she is no Lincoln.
As the evening wore on, her rhetoric grew more demagogic and threadbare. At one point, she was blaming a rise in schoolyard bullying on the “Trump effect.” On the topic of helping Hispanics in hellish inner cities, her response was to tell the questioner that in the distant past she once worked to sign up Hispanics to vote, which served only to prove Trump’s point that she is only interested in their votes. Also, since when has it been an effective debating tactic to direct the audience’s attention (as Hillary did multiple times) to websites run by your political allies? It underlined that her campaign has everything but an engaged candidate.
Of course, any objective fact-checkers would have flagged most of her statements as false. She had Trump attacking “Captain Khan,” something he never did, and hurled many other bogus charges at him. Trump quickly pointed out that Captain Khan died in the war to which Hillary had sent him.
Trump, for the most part, avoided the narcissistic digressions that plagued his first performance, and hit on important subjects such as Libya and Obamacare. He brought up Bernie Sanders’ poor opinion of Hillary frequently enough that she had to say defensively and weakly that Sanders has in fact endorsed her. He gave strong answers on taxation and energy while she promised nothing but more of the same.
So Trump survives to fight another day, a point even the post-debate pundits seemed to concede grudgingly, with the exception perhaps of Megyn Kelly, who sounds more and more like a Hillary operative. For no apparent reason, she immediately pronounced the debate “bad for America” and tried to throw a wet blanket over the praise for Trump’s improved debate performance. Kelly’s I-speak-for-all-women shtick has grown very tiresome. By the end of her show, she was hawking her new book, as if she is a world-historical figure whose thoughts should make or break national elections. The British would call her a “news reader.”
That was another point Trump scored in the debate, pointing out the self-importance of moderators butting into debates. “It is three on one,” he said at one point, after the moderators interrupted one of his answers. He was right. But it didn’t matter. He still survived.