Donald Trump cleared the lowest bar in the history of presidential debates Sunday night at Washington University in St. Louis, and Hillary Clinton was a little off her game.
It turns out the sedate and focused version of Trump is better than the unhinged one voters saw a couple of weeks ago in his first matchup with Clinton. And he was better prepared to go after Clinton on her email scandal, her speeches to Wall Street banks, and her long tenure as a Washington insider.
But Trump remains wildly uninformed about foreign and domestic policy, incapable of articulating his own strategy and unwilling or unable to reach out beyond his white, male base. Whoever won, it was on points. There was no knockout. But Trump left Clinton with plenty to rehash over the coming weeks.
He repeatedly referred to his boasting about sexually assaulting women as “locker room” talk; he threatened to imprison Clinton without indictment, trial, verdict or sentencing; he said Capt. Humayun Khan would be alive today if Trump had been president; he split with his running mate on Syria policy; he said Aleppo has fallen; he argued Russia is ahead of the United States in nuclear armament; he admitted that he claimed a tax loss of nearly $1 billion; and he reinforced the narrative that Clinton’s built for herself in complimenting her ability to fight.
If we’ve learned anything about debates in this cycle, it’s that they are only a small piece of the larger arguments that the candidates are making to the American public. After the first debate, Clinton crushed Trump on his treatment of women. She'll use the things he said Sunday – and the things she said – to hammer him again. Expect to hear more about how he buys cheap Chinese steel for his buildings.
Democrats are disappointed with Clinton’s performance, but they still think Trump would be a complete disaster for the country. Undecided voters won’t be swayed en masse by Sunday’s debate. And Trump gave establishment Republicans no reason to rush to his side. In that vein, debate moderator Martha Raddatz asked Trump whether he had changed since he was caught in a 2005 recording saying, in pornographic terms, that he liked to grab women by their privates.
Do any Republicans think that clip was the most recent or worst of what Trump has said? I doubt it. It will get worse. This wasn’t the moment that Trump put misogyny behind him. There was just nothing new during the 90 minutes of the debate. He also missed opportunities to speak more inclusively about Muslims and African-Americans.
Clinton, nursing a lead, was more cautious than she was in the first debate. The good news for her: She remains the steady candidate in a campaign in which her rival is the most temperamentally unfit person ever to win a major-party nomination. The bad news: She didn’t put him away like she did in the first debate.
Ultimately, though, this contest will be remembered for Trump accusing Clinton of being worse than him because of her husband’s infidelity and because she defended him against allegations of rape and sexual assault against him. That’s a reminder that Trump – not Hillary Clinton – brags about sexually assaulting women, which is not good for him. Otherwise, it will be forgotten – a minor moment in a campaign that Clinton is still on course to win handily.
There’s now one big head-to-head matchup left for Trump to try to change the fundamental dynamics of the campaign. Unless Clinton denounces Jesus Christ and praises Satan – and maybe not even then – he will fail to do that. Trump was finished as a presidential candidate partway through the first debate. The question now is how far he drags down fellow Republicans on the ballot. Sunday night was an oasis for them. But there’s a long stretch of desert between here and Election Day.
Republicans who have stuck with Trump are trying to ride an overloaded skateboard across the sand. Sunday night’s debate didn’t give them the new vehicle they need to reach the finish line.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.