If Sunday night’s presidential debate had a theme, it was this: Low expectations were met.
Given the firestorm that preceded the debate — 48 hours of nonstop coverage of despicable comments Donald Trump made on a hot mic 11 years ago — there were serious people asking seriously if it would be a last hurrah for the Republican nominee, his final showing before being replaced on the GOP ticket. Elected Republicans across the country had been abandoning Trump since the video was reported by the Washington Post. Trump couldn’t have entered the debate hall thinking about rising in the polls so much as avoiding his political funeral.
Well, he did avoid that. It was an uneven performance, rough at the start, strong in the middle, fading a bit down the home stretch and then ending nicely. But Trump easily cleared the low bar of “can he get through 90 minutes without finishing off his campaign 30 days before the election?”
Here’s the thing about low expectations, though: The reward for meeting them isn’t all that impressive.
Really, the best thing that can be said about Trump in his second debate with Hillary Clinton is that he did well enough not to face the unprecedented step of stepping down or being forcibly removed as a major-party nominee. That’s it. He did not wound Clinton’s candidacy in any discernible way. He offered very little that was new — other than a pledge if he’s elected, almost certainly unique in American political history, to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her email practices as secretary of state. Nor did he say anything we might expect to broaden his appeal beyond his shrinking share of the Republican base. He repeated his usual attacks on her, although he did introduce a stunning element of theatrics by inviting three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct toward them and referring to them during one of his remarks.
But other than that drama, he did not bring anything new to the table. Consider this: Trump has harped for more than a year about the porous border and the need to rein in illegal immigration and trade with our neighbors. Yet, when given a chance to talk about emails by Clinton’s staff released by Wikileaks late Friday — including an EU-esque “hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders” — Trump completely whiffed. He spent much of his allotted time instead talking (not for the first time in these debates!) about his renovation of the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington. Seriously.
Clinton, on the other hand, skillfully made the case for Trump’s lack of presidential fitness based on his lewd comments. She likened them to offensive things Trump has said about other groups of people, arguing he has been unfit to serve all along. It was an obviously rehearsed attack, but it was a good one. She spent much of the rest of the night playing defense, which she did well enough to exit the stage unscathed.
You see, low expectations also served Clinton well on this night. All she had to do, given the previous 48 hours and a week’s worth of excellent poll numbers, was avoid any kind of moment that could let Trump back into the race. I didn’t see any such moment, whether a negative one for her or a positive one for him.