Three things were especially striking about the second presidential debate. That is, three things beyond the overall national horror show.
First, if Donald Trump had exhibited half the civility in the last year that he did in the last minute of the debate, he'd be the heavy favorite to be our next president.
Second, Trump's locker room rationale for his vulgar, disrespectful discourse about women is ludicrous. Not all guys in locker rooms — in fact not many, in my experience — spew such crud.
Anyway, Trump's not running for locker room towel manager. He's asking to become our distinguished national leader.
Third, the Republican Party under Trump is self-destructing. How the party rebuilds after its standard-bearer is widely spurned by disgusted Americans on Nov. 8 will be the most important outcome of this election for the GOP.
Having observed Trump's demeanor and listened to his vile verbiage over the last year, the debate's pleasant surprise was his last-minute graciousness toward opponent Hillary Clinton.
The candidates were asked by a voter to cite one thing they respected about their rival.
"I respect his children," Clinton answered. "His children are incredibly able and devoted and I think that says a lot about Donald."
That response was no surprise. Whatever complaints anyone has about Clinton, she's civilized.
We're so used to the boorish side of Trump that his response was shocking. He seemed sincerely touched by Clinton's praise of his children and called it "a very nice compliment."
Then he added: "I will say this about Hillary. She doesn't quit. She doesn't give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She's a fighter. I disagree with much of what she's fighting for…. But she does fight hard…. And I consider that to be a very good trait."
A little more of that positive tone during the campaign — combined with far fewer insults of women, Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled and people of any ideology or color who might disagree with him — and Trump wouldn't be the most unpopular presidential nominee ever.
"With the possible exception of Aaron Burr, he is the worst person to ever run for president," says Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former national GOP official.
The first 89 minutes of the town hall-style debate was a reminder of why so many millions — including countless Republicans like Pitney — despise the GOP nominee.
While Clinton was answering voters, Trump paced behind her in camera range, frowning arrogantly and displaying his self-centered nature.
Give him some credit: He didn't interrupt Clinton nearly as much as in the first debate. But he was just as caustic and tasteless.
His opponent "has tremendous hate in her heart," he said. And if he were president, Trump told her, "you'd be in jail" for mishandling emails as secretary of state.
I've listened to scores of presidential candidates over the decades, and until then had never heard one threaten to jail his opponent. That's hardly how to "make America great again."
Clinton didn't help herself by constantly, through smirks and sighs, showing her genuine disdain of Trump. She was more smiley in the first debate. But how could she not look sour the second time?
The first third of the event was consumed by the unprecedented presidential debate topic of a candidate having bragged on tape in lewd language about trying to seduce a married woman and groping other beauties.
"Grab them by the [genitals]. You can do anything" if you're "a star" like him, Trump said on the 2005 recording.
"This was locker room talk," Trump rationalized. "I'm not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people…. But this is locker room talk."
Well, not really. Sure, you hear some sexual filth in locker rooms. But not by most guys. And not about specific female prey as Trump was detailing.
Anyway, we know about Trump's disrespect for women from his previous diatribes.
Trump's candidacy is unquestionably a new moral low for the Republican Party. But I don't blame Trump — he is what he is — as much as the GOP leaders who cowered and allowed him to become the party's face.
They feared recrimination from Trump's ardent supporters, who are angry at the government, hateful of Clinton and vulnerable to demagoguery. The Republican hierarchy felt it more important to support the party's nominee than to protect the GOP and the country's long-term interests.
Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), put it well Sunday on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
The magnitude of Trump's "disgrace to the country is almost impossible, I think, to articulate," Schmidt said. "But it has exposed the intellectual rot in the Republican Party….
"This party, to go forward and to represent a conservative vision for America, has great soul searching to do." He criticized GOP candidates "who have repeatedly put their party ahead of their country, denying what is so obviously clear to anybody who's watching about [Trump's] complete and total manifest unfitness for this office."
For Republicans, this indeed will be a "change" election. After the debacle, the party hopefully will reshape itself and never again nominate such an embarrassment.
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