AUSTIN, Texas – In less than 48 hours, Donald Trump went from Friday night mea culpa to Sunday night hail Mary as he used the second presidential debate to try to keep alive a campaign on life support.
The saddest thing about all this is that he probably did as well as he could do. It was far from good enough to persuade undecideds that he’s Oval Office ready, but it was good enough to keep him in the race and quell, for now, the GOP civil war his candidacy has caused.
But Trump, in his 90-minute verbal sparring session with Hillary Clinton, did nothing to expand his electorate, something he must do to have any chance of victory.
In a reversal from the first debate, Trump started out erratically and then got it together to offer some solid – if yearning for fact check – policy positions. In what was a low hurdle, he was better prepared than he was for the first debate.
It was a night that reminded us that this is the apology campaign, on both sides, with Trump again apologizing for the now-famous and inexcusable 2005 comments about women, and Clinton again apologizing for her mishandling of her emails while secretary of state.
The Sunday night fight opened without a handshake, perhaps the first time that’s happened in a presidential debate. It ended with a handshake, but maybe only because the debate ended on something of an uplifting note when the last question forced each one to say something nice about the other. He has good children, Clinton said. She’s a fighter, he said.
But this was a verbal rumble, actually starting pre-debate when Trump trotted out three women who have made allegations of sexual assault against Bill Clinton.
Trump, while re-apologizing for his 2005 comments (“locker room talk,” he called it again), somehow turned a question about that into a response about how he will “knock the hell out of ISIS.”
“If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse, mine are words, his was action,” Trump said. “This is what he has done to women. Never been anybody in history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women, so you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
Hillary Clinton countered with the words of Michelle Obama: “When they go low, you go high.” And then she attacked.
“And look, if this were just about one video, maybe what he’s saying tonight would be understandable, but everyone can draw their own conclusions at this point about whether or not the man in video or on the stage respects women,” she said, listing other people Trump has insulted.
On both sides, the town hall debate, which didn’t have the candidates anchored at rostrums, was a body language watcher’s dream. Trump often stalked as Clinton talked. At times, she smiled a smile of derision/disbelief as Trump spoke.
And Trump, like everybody who imitates him, could not resist biting one-liners.
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump said after Clinton said it’s “awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law of our country.”
At another moment, after Clinton pointed out she had not interrupted Trump, he quipped, “Because you have nothing to say.” And in a quip sure to delight his base, Trump called Clinton “the devil.”
Far be it from me to criticize zinger-lobbing wise guys, but I’m not running for president.
The oddest thing about the Sunday debate was Trump’s attempt, by mentioning Bill Clinton’s indiscretions and parading out the woman who’ve long made the long-ago-reported allegations, to seize the moral high ground in his decidedly low-ground race.
As Trump was apologizing Sunday night for his despicable 2005 comments, it occurred to me he would be denying the conversation ever happened – even if there had been 10 earwitnesses to it – if not for the tape he could not deny.
Nevertheless, his repeated apology seemed sincere, though it’s still hard to tell whether he’s sorry for saying it or sorry that somebody recorded it.
“I’ve never said I’m a perfect person,” he said in his made-for-TV Friday night apology.
Nobody ever said we demand perfection in our presidents. We do, however, expect them to be at least as good as our country, even when the microphones aren’t switched on.
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.