All indications that have been given over the last three days is that the second presidential debate set to take place tonight at Washington University in St. Louis will be anything but presidential.
Trump’s unguarded, “grab them by the p****“ moment on an Access Hollywood bus eleven years ago has completely upended the race and has provided Hillary Clinton and her campaign with more ammunition than she could have hoped for. With dozens of elected GOP officials bolting from Trump’s campaign and rumors inside Trump’s orbit that vice presidential nominee Mike Pence is incredibly upset about the remarks, the drip-drip nature of the fallout has turned into political armageddon.
Tonight is likely the last, best chance that Trump has to rescue himself from being possibly the most embarrassing presidential nominee in Republican Party history since Barry Goldwater in 1964, who at least ran on a strong set of principles.
Here are five questions that will determine how tonight’s debate between Clinton and Trump will go.
1. Will Clinton attack immediately?
Hillary Clinton and her campaign advisers have largely stayed on the sidelines after Trump’s latest comments about women were revealed on Friday
night. With the exception of a single Tweet calling the billionaire’s boasting of sexual assault “horrific
,” Hillary has tried to stay above the fray by delegating the task of condemning Trump’s actions to vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine and her television surrogates. That could change tonight — indeed, it will change tonight
. If Clinton chooses to go right after Trump during the opening minutes of the debate, it will be in an attempt to mimic the strategy she successfully used during the first debate two weeks ago: poking Trump with a stick in order to arise a reaction out of him. And if Trump takes the bait, any strategy by him to show contrition for his laughter about sexual assault will go right out the window.
2. Will Trump bring up Bill’s past?:
This is the $64,000 question. Trump’s activity on Twitter over the past two days strongly suggests that he will refer to former President Bill Clinton’s sexual exploits with younger women in order to make his 2005 remarks seem quant by comparison. At least I didn’t sexually abuse women while I was President of the United States, he may say. Indeed, as early as this morning, Trump retweeted an interview
of three of Bill Clinton’s accusers (Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones), all of whom told Breitbart News
that the 42nd President is the perfect example of a man who treats women horribly and gets away with it. If Trump brings up Bill Clinton’s past, it will reaffirm his reputation as someone who knows no political boundaries and will open himself up to accusations of going anywhere he needs to go in order to distract from his own actions.
3. Will Trump be contrite?
: Trump is a lot of things, but apologetic isn’t one of them. His Friday
night video statement was a pathetic excuse for damage-control; he spent about as much time talking about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s abuse of women as he did asking for forgiveness. There are no doubt some within Trump’s inner circle would like him to show a softer and more humble side tonight
, even if it isn’t sincere. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, making the television rounds this morning, may be one of those people — he continually referred to Trump as “a flawed human being
” who has made mistakes in the past, but which he now wants to correct in the future. Trump, however, isn’t Giuliani; surrogates can make the case for him, but Trump himself needs to demonstrate to Americans that he understands that groping women is both unacceptable in a civilized society and illegal.
4. Can Hillary Escape More Leaked Emails?
: The Wikileaks dump of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta would be a big political story any day of the week if it weren’t for the fact that the GOP nominee weren’t caught talking gleefully about sexual assault. The emails (which I admittedly haven’t read) reportedly
paint a picture of Hillary Clinton beholden to a financial elite on Wall Street and a calculating politician who says one thing about international trade in private and another in public. Trump will try to leverage those emails tonight
as the best example yet of his opponent being a phony, “all talk, no action” politician who just doesn’t recognize how disastrous NAFTA was to American manufacturing. Whether it gets any play or lands a punch will depend on how well he can deal with his own problems.
5. Will Pence be the winner in all of this?: Donald Trump has made his running mate Mike Pence look like Mother Theresa — a squeakily clean, deeply religious politician who is experienced, calm, respected by his fellow conservatives, and…well…smart enough to know that sexual assault is intolerable. Pence’s solid performance against Tim Kaine during last week’s VP debate was a double-edged sword for Republican establishment types — a great showing that helped stem the bleeding from Trump’s horrible matchup a week prior, but one that also gave Republicans across the party a feeling of resignation that they might have a chance if only Pence were at the top of ticket. With every idiotic blunder by Trump, Pence looks that much more like a statesman. Although Pence is still on the ticket for 2016, the Indiana Governor’s political future may look brighter four years later when the GOP will be searching for a nominee to stave off a second term for Hillary Clinton. This of course assumes that Trump will lose in November (we are still four weeks away from Election Day), but the last three days haven’t given people much confidence to challenge that assumption.