With his performance in last night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump succeeded in his most important task: He survived, and he did so by enlarging the GOP tent just enough to allow his own running mate to squeeze back inside ….
Prior to the debate, a slew of Republican senators, governors and congressmen had withdrawn their support for Trump’s candidacy, calling him “unsuitable for the presidency” and saying they could not support a candidate who “brags about degrading and assaulting women.” In announcing his decision, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado called his party’s standard-bearer “a candidate whose flaws go well beyond moral shortcomings and who shows a disgust for American character and a disdain for dignity unbecoming of the presidency.”
Pence himself had walked off the campaign trail and returned home, saying “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them” and suggesting that he would take the next 48 hours to reassess his involvement. His home-state newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, quoted sources close to the Indiana governor as saying that he was “keeping his options open.”
Apparently, Pence saw enough in the debate last night to allow him to return to Trump’s side, thus saving his party a complete collapse. But a lot of other Americans were less convinced. In a CNN poll of debate watchers, 57 percent thought Hillary Clinton had won; just 34 percent gave Trump the victory. A YouGov poll also gave the win to Clinton but more narrowly at 47-42 percent.
Personally, I thought the country dodged a bullet. Yes, the debate was ugly, especially in its first 20 minutes, when Trump and Clinton traded insults and rape allegations and other garbage. But the two participants then moved on, and in the end the event wasn’t the cataclysmic nightmare that I had feared.
Trump was Trump, short on detail, long on bluster and forever untethered to reality. He promised a great health-care plan to replace ObamaCare, and when asked for specifics, he responded by saying it would be really great. He promised to eradicate ISIS, and when asked how he again blustered and feinted. Pressed about the extraordinary intervention in this election by Vladimir Putin on his behalf, he feigned ignorance. His threat to imprison Clinton should he get elected was extraordinary, and in any other election year would have been the political story of the century. And when he wasn’t responding himself, he paced and hovered angrily in the background of the camera shot, doing a pouty Mussolini act.
Clinton was restrained. She knew the polls were swinging strongly in her favor even before release of the Trump “locker room” remarks; she knew that time and momentum are both on her side; she understood that the entire Republican Party is in the throes of collapse. So if Trump self-destructed on the stage last night, that would be fine, but strategically speaking a draw would suit her just fine. She played it low-key, and it worked.
Overall, then, Trump did well enough to slow the exodus of GOP support, even if temporarily, but a campaign fighting hard to keep the support of its own party at this stage is not a campaign capable of victory. And Clinton did more than enough to ensure that her path to the White House remains uncluttered by obstacles.