In retrospect, historians may view the second US presidential debate as a ‘missed opportunity’ for the Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton, whose cautious approach and tepid counterpunches may have played a big role in preventing a cascade effect from the political hurricane that coincided with Hurricane Mathew and, in many respects, paralleled it as a result of the latest disclosures regarding Trump’s mistreatment of women.
As a result, the debate was at best a draw, with Trump having the upper edge on both style and substance. He was able to refocus attention on Clinton’s own problems with a womanizing husband, former president Bill Clinton, who was much embarrassed by Trump’s rather brilliant tactical move of marshaling four women who have complained of sexual abuse by Hillary’s husband. In comparison, little of the feisty and combative Clinton of the first debate was visible at this debate and she was repeatedly put on the defensive on the issue of her e-mails and careless handling of top security communication. Trump was also effective when attacking Clinton’s non-compliance with a congressional subpoena of her emails and her reported destruction of thousands of her e-mails, some of which apparently had to do with the Clinton Foundation.
This was supposed to be a town hall meeting format favoring Clinton, who is more experienced in this regard, but the nuanced “politicans’ answers faded in comparison to Trump’s populistic style that has carried him so far. Trump’s calm and confident demeanor, under the firestorm of the latest controversy, and his ability to put the moderators on notice over their tendency to let Clinton off the hook, as was the case in the first debate, helped him gather the pieces and thus stop the political hemorrhage that has bedeviled his campaign during the past few days. It is therefore unlikely that Trump lost any votes among his constituency, yet unclear if he succeeded in convincing many undecided voters to swing in this direction.
On foreign policy, Trump categorically stated his opposition to his running mate Mike Pence, who has called for direct US assault on the Syrian army attacking Aleppo, bluntly accusing Clinton of supporting the radical jihadists dressed as Syrian rebels, adding that both Russia and Syrian want ISIS defeated and so does the US. That must have resonated with many Americans who are wary of another unwise US military entanglement abroad, in light of the recent grandstanding of US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who has suddenly turned very hawkish in the last two months of his tenure in office. Trump’s more reasonable approach, suggesting US-Russian cooperation against ISIS, is backed by a sizable group of US military commanders who have endorsed him, who has repeatedly stated his commitment for a real war on ISIS, which emerged from a vacuum of power caused by the premature departure of US forces from Iraq.
At this point, however, with so many leading Republican politicians deserting Trump over the disclosed tape aforementioned, the deep damage to Trump’s campaign may be irreparable but, on the other hand, with less than a month to the general elections, which have already started in a few states, there is sufficient time for his camp to regroup and regain the lost ground.
For sure, Trump’s ability to handle himself rather well at the second debate, and Clinton’s inability to seize on the moment to rip Trump apart, partly due to Trump’s counterattack of gathering Bill’s female accusers, together resulted in a substantive debate that benefited Trump by virtue of keeping the race alive instead of sounding the death knell for his presidential bid, as many Democrats had hoped.