By Howard Portnoy
Last night, moments after the sluggest at Wash. U. — aka, the second 2016 presidential debate — I checked headlines to see what the liberal chattering class had to say. I came across the results of a poll conducted by CNN (during the debate, I suppose, because the story was up and running by 10:35) that found that 57% of viewers said Clinton won the debate. Now I understand it is common practice for both sides to declare victory in cases like this, but I honestly had to ask myself which debate those viewers were tuned in to.
The one I watched had a Hillary Clinton who walked onstage with the expectation of smirking at everything her opponent said, as she did through much of the first debate. But it also featured a Donald Trump, who early on, knocked that smug grin off Hillary’s kisser by reminding her of the $850,000 settlement her husband had paid out to one of his rape accusers and of her own ugly defense of a rapist against a 12-year-old female back when she was a public defender.
Trump came prepared last night. He preceded the debate with a press conference in which he was joined by the aforementioned rape victim, Kathy Shelton, as well as three women — Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathleen Willey — who had claimed Bill Clinton forced himself on them. It was a stroke of genius in that it diverted attention away from Trump’s “locker room” comments and on to the issues that face the nation. In service of this last goal, he hammered away relentlessly at Clinton’s 30-year record as a career politician who was at best all talk and no action.
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His performance throughout was so strong that even CBS’s Nancy Cordes commented that Clinton spent “a lot of the night on the defensive.”
Unlike in the first debate, Trump came prepared to do battle. When an audience member asked him, “Do you believe you can be a devoted president to all the people in the United States?” he answered:
Absolutely. I mean, she calls our people deplorable, a large group, and irredeemable. I will be a president for all of our people.
This time, it was Trump, not Clinton that got a rise out of those present in the auditorium. When Clinton attempted a dig at Trump by observing that “it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” she walked into a buzz saw. His response — “Because you’d be in jail” — drew cheers.
One of Clinton’s biggest failings of the night came with the last question, asked by one of the town hall members: “Regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”
She answered that Trump had nice kids. His response was both thoughtful and gracious:
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. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But she does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. And I consider that to be a very good trait.
Chalk one up for the Donald. That’s not me speaking. That’s Chris Matthews.
So was the event ugly? You bet. Does it restore Trump’s legitimacy as one deeply flawed, highly unpopular, candidate running against another for the presidency of the United States? From where I sit, it sure looks that way.