From top: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at last night’s US presidential Debate; Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton at same; Derek Mooney
After last night’s debate, Donald Trump will likely have done enough to stop his Presidential bid from free falling but this campaign has yet to reach its nadir.
Derek Mooney writes:
My usual routine is sit down to write these ‘Mooney on Monday’ pieces around midday. I write for about 90 minutes. I take a 30-minute break, after which I return to review and edit what I have scribbled and send the resulting draft to my Broadsheet controller.
Today’s offering is different as I am writing it at 6am (ish) after watching the second Clinton/Trump debate. Is debate the right word… probably not. Maybe mudslinging fest is a better description.
As a debate it was awful. It was so awful that it moved the veteran CBS Washington Correspondent, Bob Schieffer, to complain bitterly that: “America can do better than what we have seen here tonight. This was just disgraceful”.
Schieffer’s observations were not limited to the 90 minutes of the Town Hall style debate but neither were they about both candidates.
There was one clear culprit. Less than two hours before the debate commenced, with many in his Republican Party (GOP) abandoning him, Donald Trump held a surprise press conference featuring four women, three of whom have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.
It was the moment when the 2016 US Presidential Election campaign almost ended and the Trump reality show began. It was not even a veiled threat to Hillary Clinton, the implication was clear: you go after me on my comments about women and I talk about your husband’s infidelities… and worse.
It was a curtain raising stunt that set the tone low and presaged the tone dipping even lower as the evening continued.
For the most part that is what happened. Trump started out badly, particularly over the first thirty minutes when the debate centred on last Friday’s 2005 ‘Hot Mic’ recording of Trump talking in lewd terms about women.
He was at his blustering and petulant worst. He lashed out at everyone, including the moderators, claiming that “It’s three against one” as he accusing them of taking Mrs Clinton’s side. (Note: A post-debate CNN analysis found that the moderators had enforced equal time: Trump: 40m 10s, Clinton: 39m 5s.)
Unlike the first debate where Trump had a good first 20 minutes and then started to slump, Trump did it the other way around this time. He upped his game as the debate continued and managed to score points against Hillary, mainly via some good jokes and one liners rather than any substantive policy wins.
Conversely, (this is one of those post-coffee edits where I realise that I have focused just on Trump) Hillary Clinton seemed to have lost the edge and bite she sometimes showed in the first debate.
Perhaps as a response to his pre-debate baiting, she stuck with the Michelle Obama mantra: where they go low, we go high. She engaged directly with the questioners and spoke to them in contrast to Trump who did not even attempt to.
Hillary allowed Trump take a few free hits at her, perhaps concluding that the tape had done him sufficient damage or, more cunningly, that he was of more use to her limping through the final few weeks, than being defenestrated now.
Either way, the net effect is that Trump will likely have done enough to stop his campaign free falling any further. This was no small achievement.
Only a few hours earlier the gossip was the GOP leadership had concluded that his campaign was already dead in the water and was now set to shift money from promoting Trump to backing GOP House and Senate candidates in tight battles.
While he has stopped the slide accelerating, maybe even halted the decline for the moment, he has done nothing to reverse it. He did OK, but he still didn’t win the debate.
He did not try to convince swing/undecided voters that he has the temperament or judgement to be President. Indeed, as the next few days play it is likely that three things he said during the debate may, individually or collectively, come back to damage him further.
First, was his pledge to instruct the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to prosecute Clinton over the email server debacle, later saying “you’d be in jail” if he was president.
This is how depressingly low this campaign has sunk – one candidate threatening to imprison the other upon their election. The USA meets the Ukraine. Not to mention the fact that, post Nixon, no President actually has that power.
Second, Trump disavowed his running mate Mike Pence’s support for creating humanitarian safe zones, including a no-fly zones, for civilians in Syria, saying: He [Pence] and I haven’t spoken and I disagree. This sounded like policy making on the hoof from Trump, not to mention dumping on your own VP selection,
Third, Trump admitted he didn’t pay income taxes, responding: “Of course I do” when Anderson Cooper asked if he used an almost €1Bn loss to avoid paying personal federal income taxes.
Add to this the swirl of rumours of other tapes and recordings ready to be produced where he says things as bad, or worse, than the Hot Mic tape and you see that his campaign – and this election – may not yet have hit its nadir.
Earlier this year Trump looked set to position himself as the “outsider” coming in to challenge the political establishment and the political elite in both the Republican and the Democratic parties.
As I set out here in early June, there was a sizeable section of the American public, people who believe their country is on the wrong path, ready to ignore Trump’s inflated rhetoric and his crass behaviour because they saw him as a political battering ram they could use to smash an establishment and system which they see as out of touch with their concerns and needs.
They factored in his weaknesses and foibles, hence why his excesses were not really hurting him significantly in the polls. But that was when he was talking about their concerns and their issues.
That has not been his tack of late. Now Trump spends most of his time talking about Trump, partly in response to the Clinton campaign – but either way the voters who once saw him as their flawed champion now increasingly see him as too damaged and too flawed to batter anything.
This election is hers for the winning in a way it wasn’t only a few weeks ago.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Monday mid-afternoon. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney
Pics: AP, Getty