Donald Trump won the second presidential debate, but only according to the terrible standards of this election. Bearing in mind that his candidacy was believed to be over, his own party was rejecting him, and he was widely predicted to go nuts on air - he actually did okay. The Donald came out fighting. He weathered the attacks on his character. He ran rings around Clinton several times. The bar was low - way, way low - but Trump still slithered over it.
What a night. Trump admitted that he doesn't always talk to his vice presidential candidate and threatened to jail his opponent if he wins. And those were just throw away remarks.
At the beginning of the evening, he was stiff and uncomfortable as the moderators dredged up his 2005 banterathon with Billy Bush. He had disrespected women, they said, he had boasted about sexual assault. Trump looked like he was in the dock. Occasionally he shot a glance at the audience - maybe at the women he'd invited who accused the Clintons of abusing them in one way or another. He probably didn't intend to bring up their allegations; their presence was enough. But he lost his temper, as Trump always does, and called Bill the most sexist, abusive president in history. Millions of viewers will have found this tasteless. But it's something conservatives have waited two decades to see: someone telling the nation's most prominent feminist to her face that she's a hypocrite for standing by her man.
So the evening began with Clinton in control. She made her pitch to be a healer; she ran off a checklist of people Trump has insulted (it's amusingly long - only the left handed and the Welsh are missing). But when the debate moved on she didn't seem to keep up. Her answers on medical reform and foreign policy were good, but there was too much smiling and listening to Donald rant with weary patience. All the while that she spoke, he prowled around the room like a caged tiger - which meant that even when Hillary was talking, one's eyes were on him. And when the moderators took it upon themselves to start fact-checking his statements - and Trump feigned outrage - the debate turned into "An Evening with Donald Trump."
Trump is a crazy candidate, yes. But Clinton is a really poor one. Any other Democratic nominee would've had the wit to put Trump down with ad libs. She couldn't do it. You might say that she's trying to rise above Trump - but just by being on the stage with him, which is unavoidable, she has come down to his level. Because she wouldn't fight back, it looked like Trump had made legitimate points. Punches unguarded against her hit home. His argument could be summed up as: "You've known her for even longer than you've known me, and you like her just as little."
Clinton's flaws are substantive. The debate touched upon the recently leaked emails of John Podesta, her campaign chair. They included transcripts of talks to Wall Street execs that showed her saying that a politician has to have a public and private face, that she wants to abandon borders, and that she admires European-style healthcare systems. Then there was her answer to a question about Supreme Court nominations. She failed to mention the Constitution once, instead saying that she wants to rebalance the Court towards ideological liberalism. That answer alone will cause some Republicans to stick with Trump regardless of his flaws. Gun rights are effectively on the ballot in this election. Abortion, too.
So a good night for Trump in the sense that it wasn't all about him. It was an awful lot about Clinton, too. But at this stage in the contest, a victory for Trump probably means that his numbers hold steady rather than rise. His problems are mighty. Dozens of Republican grandees have come out against him; he received a reprimand from his own veep. He is behind in the battleground states. He is behind nationally. After tonight, at least he can face defeat knowing that his base will love him to the end of time. He made Bill and Hillary Clinton sit in a room full of their accusers and he called them liars in front of the world. If only he could control his sniffing into the microphone, he'd make the next Judge Judy.