Facing tremendous pressure to appear contrite and offer a genuine apology for his comments about taking advantage of women some 11 years ago, Donald Trump did something better: he pivoted.
The debate focused on the #TrumpTapes for barely a few minutes and it wasn’t the fault of the moderators or Hillary Clinton. Trump just moved past the apology faster than anyone expected, straight into his attacks on Bill Clinton – which we knew were coming based on the past few days and the pre-debate press conference he held with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault – to the meat of this election: change versus status quo.
Trump emphasized over and over again that Clinton has spent the last 30 years in public service and has little to show for it. He went at her foreign policy record and cited failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iran. After missing opportunities to hit Clinton on her emails and Benghazi, he didn’t let that happen again, bringing up both several times.
He talked about the tax hikes that would be coming if Clinton is elected and called out her backers – Warren Buffet and George Soros – for doing just what he did in terms of his taxes. Indeed, this was one of his most effective attacks and by lumping his behavior in with the actions of well-respected businessmen Clinton surrounds herself with, Trump may have largely moved past the tax issue. To this end, a focus group found that a majority think that Trump won the exchange on taxes.
He also called her out for not putting her own money into her campaign when she’s “made $250 million from being in government.” The pay-to-play scandal plaguing Clinton and the Clinton Foundation has seriously hurt her honesty and trustworthy numbers – a fact Trump was clearly aware of on Sunday night.
It helped that he was more subdued on this Sunday evening than he was in the first debate and he didn’t lose his cool despite ample opportunity for him to rant. His style remains unconventional, but he wasn’t obviously angry or frustrated, a marked difference from the last time these two met.
For her part, Clinton didn’t have a bad debate. She was strong in emphasizing Trump’s lack of qualifications and fitness to lead. She continually cited the Republicans and Independents that are fleeing the Trump campaign, signaling to viewers that the dynamics of the race have shifted in her favor – which they have.
Clinton gave a strong answer on taxes, appealing to the left with her defense of large tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. Her response on the dynamics between Russia and Syria was nuanced and showed why she’s leading in terms of qualifications, experience and temperament. She also gave an important answer on how we need to make Muslim Americans feel welcome and part of the country, not marginalize them like Trump would do with his policies and rhetoric.
Other important areas that Clinton covered were her support for comprehensive background checks and closing the gun-show loophole, a favorite amongst liberals and Americans more generally. She was also much clearer on her energy policy, embracing that climate change is indeed real and needs to be treated as a priority.
All this is to say that Trump surprised a lot of people on Sunday night. He did better than anyone would’ve expected, especially considering the tape release from Friday.
This doesn’t change the fact that Trump still faces huge challenges in fundraising, ground game and infrastructure.
But Sunday night’s debate does keep him in the game and should help him start to crawl out of the hole he’s been digging himself over the past two weeks.