Donald Trump had a deep hole to climb out of Sunday in the second presidential debate, one he’d dug with a succession of self-generated controversies that culminated Friday in the release of a 2005 video in which he bragged about groping women.
It was perhaps an impossibly deep hole, and Trump did not succeed in climbing out.
Trump ended the debate in the same wounded condition in which he’d begun it: with fearful Republicans worried about the trajectory of his campaign, and in some cases asking him to abandon his candidacy.
During the Republican primaries, Trump had an unerring sense of his electorate. Leveraging his celebrity status, he defied all predictions to seize the GOP nomination with a populist pitch.
But he seemed to have lost any feel for the wider electorate that he needs now. The biggest example: The voters he needs are suburban voters, primarily women, who have been turned off by his ragged tone throughout the general election campaign.
The basic requirement for Trump on Sunday was to show contrition for his words on the 2005 tape, and to show Americans that he has both the intellectual capacity and temperament to be president.
He raised questions about his knowledge and understanding by refusing to be pinned down on specific policies, to the point that moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz had to repeatedly ask him to answer their questions.
In one stunning passage, he said that he disagreed with the Syria policy laid out five days ago by his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, but said that he hadn’t yet talked to Pence about it.
Unlike his policies, Trump’s temperament was sharply in focus — but not in a good way.
He objected to the moderators that they were favoring Clinton. “One on three,” he snipped at one point. And he complained that she was getting more time to answer their questions; a tally at the end of the evening showed that Trump spoke for slightly longer than Clinton.
He interrupted Clinton so often — as he had in their first debate — that the moderators repeatedly inter-ceded.
He uttered several false statements, at one point answering a Muslim woman’s question about discrimination by contending that Muslims had seen bombs in the apartment of the San Bernardino terrorists and failed to report them.
The suburban voters on Sunday wanted to hear some logical explanation for his sexually aggressive words on the 2005 tape. They wanted to hear what he would do as president, and how he would lead a troubled country back to greatness, as he pledges in his slogan. But they got neither.
Trump also misread the theatrics of the town hall event, which called for candidate interaction with an audience of undecided voters. Those debates are typically difficult for candidates, forcing a melding of sharp answers and the forging of a physical connection with people a short distance away.
Clinton walked to the edge of the stage over and over, referring to voters by name, harking back to a prior question by pointing across the hall to the person who had asked it.
Trump strode the stage as if caged, at times so close to Clinton that he seemed to be trying to intimidate her, sometimes walking so far to the side — with his back to the audience — that he seemed disinterested in her conversation with voters, or in the voters themselves.
He began the evening with a breathtakingly uncivil move. He invited to a Facebook Live chat — and later to the debate — three women who said that they had been taken advantage of sexually by Bill Clinton, and one who objected to Hillary Clinton’s legal representation of a man accused of raping her 40 years ago.
The latter case could have been developed further with questions about Clinton’s sympathies for the rape victim, but Trump did not explain the case broadly enough in the debate to have it hold much punch.
That aside, Trump with the three other women was basically arguing that Bill Clinton was a cad but that Hillary Clinton should pay a price for his actions. That act may have drawn effusive support from Trump partisans. But the notion that a woman is responsible for her husband’s dalliances seem-ed off at best given the target audience of female voters.
His tone was also a problem. Trump, after all, is the one who entered the debate having to overcome his own caustic comments. But he repeatedly behaved as though that was Clinton’s weakness, even on the very issue he needed to repair.
“Hillary brings up a point like that and she talks about words that I said 11 years ago. I think it’s disgraceful, and I think she should be ashamed of herself, if you want to know the truth,” he said.
At another point he drew gasps from the audience when he said that Clinton “has tremendous hate in her heart.”
“She’s got tremendous hatred,” he said. “And this country cannot take another four years of Barack Obama, and that’s what you’re getting with her.”
Clinton did not leave the debate site undamaged. She was hit with several questions attesting to weaknesses in her candidacy, among them her use of a private email system as secretary of State and a comment in a recent dump of hacked emails that she had a private policy and a public policy on energy.
An able opponent could have developed both of those into a unified assault on Clinton’s trustworthiness and honesty, areas that already represent a weakness for her.
When Clinton tried deflect criticism for the two practices by invoking a Steven Spielberg movie about Abraham Lincoln, Trump got off perhaps his best zinger of the night.
“Honest Abe never lied. That’s the good thing. That’s the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you,” he said.
But then he swiftly changed topics to a confusing passage in which he first said there had been hacking, but that maybe Clinton was wrong in blaming the Russians, and maybe there wasn’t hacking. That made no sense, given that elsewhere in the debate Trump himself quoted from hacked Democratic National Committee emails.
What prevented Trump from negotiating a powerful take-down of Clinton in the first two debates has been his lack of discipline.
In the first debate, he took the bait each time she tried to prod him into defensive explosions. In the second, she baited him less, but his lack of discipline showed up when he was on offense, not defense.
Often he seemed to be disgorging unconnected arguments within the same paragraph.
His answer on the question of the 2005 video inexplicably melded with a promise to be tough against Islamic State, or ISIS, the Mideastern terrorist group.
“Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it,” he said. “But it’s locker-room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS.”
Then, as at several other times in the debate, Clinton sat back looking vaguely amused, as if egging him on to talk some more.
Oddly, in a debate in which he so often garbled his themes and took on a too-harsh tone, Trump’s best answer was his last.
A questioner, implying that the country was tired of their nasty back-and-forths, asked each candidate to point out something positive about the other.
Clinton mentioned Trump’s children, calling them “incredibly able and devoted” and saying “that says a lot about Donald.”
Trump thanked her for the compliment and added words about Clinton very similar to the arguments she has made about herself in her quest for the presidency.
“She does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up,” he said, “and I consider that to be a very good trait.”
That tone, adopted at the beginning of the debate, could have gone a long way toward persuading voters that the Trump they’ve heard in his varied controversies was not all the Trump there is.
Instead, that element waited until the very end, perhaps too late to change any minds about a candidate who has much ground to make up in the next 29 days.