Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clashed in often personal terms in the second presidential debate today in St. Louis. Chris Cillizza watched, tweeted and picked some winners and losers.
Hillary Clinton: Clinton had more to work with - in terms of negative hits on Trump - in this debate than she did the last time the candidates met. And she did less with it than she did in the first debate. This debate was focused far more on Clinton than Trump - particularly in the final hour (or so). Clinton's answer on her email server was meh and her Abraham Lincoln defense on her speeches to Wall Street was ridiculous. So, how is she a winner? Because Clinton went into this debate with massive momentum in the race - much of it caused by Trump's stumbles - and didn't make any sort of glaring error that would allow the Republican back into the contest. She was steady, knowledgeable and pleasant - even in the face of some very personal attacks - throughout. And, she let Trump talk which, as has been the case since he got into the race, is always his undoing.
Martha Raddatz: Trump, from the very start, seemed intent on driving home the idea that Raddatz and CNN's Anderson Cooper were ganging up on him to help Clinton. And, Raddatz back and forth with Trump over Syria will assuredly convince plenty of conservatives that he was right. But I thought Raddatz was forceful and fair. She refused to allow Trump or Clinton to filibuster and she fact-checked when the moment required it. The only question I had about Raddatz while watching the debate was why the heck she didn't get her own solo moderating gig in these debate.
"The late, great Abraham Lincoln": This line, from Trump, was amazing. Yes, Lincoln was, indisputably, a great president. And, yes, Lincoln is, again, indisputably, dead. But who refers to him as the "late, great" Abraham Lincoln?
Donald Trump: Trump was much more solid and energetic in this debate than in the previous tilt. He was able to drive messages on Clinton's email, the Clinton Foundation and Benghazi. He dealt with his hot mic tape in (relatively) short order. And he ad-libbed a terrific line after Clinton cited Lincoln to explain her impolitic comments in front of a Wall Street audience.
"She lied. Now she's blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe," Trump said.
And yet, Trump was - stop me if you've heard this one - his own worst enemy. His stunt of holding a pre-debate press conference with a handful of women allegedly assaulted by Bill Clinton flowed seamlessly into Trump's insistence from the debate stage that Hillary Clinton would be in jail if he was elected president - and into his remarkable (and repeated) accusation that Clinton has "hate in her heart." Trump won the debate among the Republican base who have longed for a candidate who would stand up to the Clintons without fear of reprisal. The problem for Trump is that we know from polling that his base isn't nearly large enough to win an election. Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who was the lead pollster for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, put it best.
"Trump playing to his base. Reinforcing every voter who was already for him. 40% of the vote isn't going to be enough," he tweeted.
The townhall format: Ostensibly, this was a debate for the people and by the people. Undecided voters sitting on stage asking the questions they really cared about to the two people who might be president. But, that's not really how it turned out. First off, the audience felt totally ancillary to the debate - sort of like a palette cleanser the moderators threw to when the debate was leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Second, when the audience did get a chance to ask their questions, those questions were, well, terrible. "Can you be devoted to all people as president?" Huh? "Name one thing you like about your opponent?" What? Look, I get the desire to have average people ask questions. But, the questions have to be better or else it's a total waste of time.
The Trump walk: Who told Trump it would be a good idea to stay standing - and walking - throughout Clinton's answers? I don't know how it played for most people watching at home but I found it distracting and stomach-churningly awkward.
Mike Pence: Look it's been hard enough sharing the ticket with Trump over the past week. But, the Indiana governor had to grimace when Trump said a) they hadn't spoke about Syria and b) Pence's position was wrong. Rumours that Pence is going to leave the ticket - over this or anything else - seem overblown to me. He knew what he was getting into when he said he would run as Trump's VP. But, still, the public rebuke with tens of millions of people watching couldn't have been pleasant for Pence.
Bill Clinton: It had to be hard for the former president to be sitting just feet from the stage while Trump ran down his personal life and his wife. And Bubba looked like he was taking it personally.
No handshake: Maybe I am old-fashioned. But I thought it was tremendously depressing that Trump and Clinton couldn't bring themselves to shake hands at the start of the debate.
I know this has been a nasty race. And the debate that followed the no-handshake was among the least civil ever. But, still. These are the two people running to be our leader; we should ask of them to engage in a basic act of civility at the start of a debate.
The debate stage background: At this point I get that the Commission on Presidential Debates is going to leave the words of the Constitution as the background of these things. But, just because it's their job doesn't make it right.