Much like the first debate — and grading on the Trump Curve® — Trump had a good start. He started more disciplined, and sustained that discipline longer, than in any other debate. He won on many issues, particularly abortion (though most of the credit for that goes to Chris Wallace who actually asked a question about partial birth abortion). But, about 30 minutes in, Trump started interrupting and showboating. It wasn’t much at first, but it got worse and worse. The tipping point was his refusal to turn on Vladimir Putin. “He said nice things about me!” is a line he always has to get in. It’s so strange, because he honestly seems to think that repeating this helps him. It doesn’t. After months of criticism that Trump is easily swayed by flattery, when he points out that Putin flattered him and suggests that’s a valid reason for not overly antagonizing Putin it only reinforces the critique.
More to the point, few are impressed that Putin complimented him, and those who are undoubtedly are voting for Trump already. Meanwhile, the few persuadable voters left are probably less likely to vote for him when he says things like that. And that’s just one example. When he snaps “what a nasty woman” at Clinton, what voters not already enthralled with Trump, or resigned to voting for him, are brought into his column? When he blurts out “Wrong!” who, at this point, is charmed by that?
I agree with the already gelled conventional wisdom that Trump’s biggest blunder came when he said we’ll just have to wait and see whether he accepts the results of the election. Whatever arguments you want to make in defense of the response are irrelevant (and judging from the ones I’ve heard on TV, pretty pathetic). He basically gave the media carte blanche to freak out over his answer for at least a week. Don’t get me wrong, I think his answer was awful. But even if I didn’t, it was strategically stupid — unless the goal is to further alienate his core supporters from mainstream American politics in order to create a television network for the ranks of the disaffected (as part of Operation Destroy the GOP).
But where I dissent somewhat from the conventional wisdom is the notion that Trump was doing great until that one response. He lied repeatedly and shamelessly, most importantly about all of the stories of his sexual advances being debunked. They haven’t been. (I loved him saying — over and over — that “nobody” has more respect for women than he does. Nobody?) He was doing better than he has in previous debates and he was even scoring real points, but he simply wasn’t doing anything to get voters to see him in a fresh light. And when you’re this far behind, you need to add voters to your column. He didn’t do that. He didn’t even try. And that should be unforgivable.
As for Hillary. She, as ever, was plodding, uninteresting, deceitful, and arrogant. But she made no major mistakes because she understood she needs to sit on her lead and make this election a referendum on Donald Trump. Of course, if you know anything about the issues, or if you listened carefully to her answers, she just confirmed what a corrupt, dishonest, and un-compelling politician she is. She speaks in white noise, even when she’s saying outrageous or ridiculous things. All of which should be embarrassing for the Trump team given how she’s mopping the floor with him.