The high spirits among the ranks of Donald Trump supporters are not because he dominated Hillary Clinton in their second debate Sunday; he made points he wanted to make, and so did she. But he achieved something far more valuable than a textbook win, something many thought impossible. He made the tapes go away and saved his entire campaign in the process.
That damaging recording from more than a decade ago, a typical example of coarse man-talk, simply faded against a vast backdrop of actual issues. There will surely be those who seek to revisit those vulgar moments, but whether from Clinton operatives or NeverTrumpers, the floggings will not result in the serious mutiny they hope for.
The town-hall format served Trump well from the outset. Instead of a prosecutorial salvo from moderators, the opening moments featured a question from a real voter in the audience. She asked whether the candidates viewed themselves as positive role models for today’s youth, but in the unluckiest coin toss win in debate history, Hillary Clinton answered first, denying her an opportunity to reply to what would have surely been a Trump response to the insidious tapes.
Moments later, Anderson Cooper raised the issue, giving Trump a chance to destigmatize his words as “locker-room talk” rather than evidence of genuine misogyny. Clinton then replied that she was buying none of that, and that the tapes are in fact a window to his dark soul.
And that was it. Then a fairly conventional debate broke out, which seemed nearly inconceivable an hour earlier. His campaign was hanging by a thread as he took the stage in St. Louis, and 90 minutes later, the political obituaries were shelved.
Has no one learned the lesson of 2016 — that it is the height of ill wisdom to presume that a firestorm during one week will necessarily remain ablaze the following week?
Trump’s most visible supporters spent the weekend compartmentalizing, properly recoiling at the language on the tape while reminding the nation that those words do not suddenly make a Hillary Clinton presidency a good idea.
It was Trump’s job to move that ball farther downfield, and the debate questions provided ample opportunity. He was able to draw stark contrasts between his policies and hers on areas of national security, taxes, energy, Obamacare and more.
The Clinton camp would fairly observe that they, too, were given the opportunity to draw stark lines on policy. But that’s exactly my point: On the night when all the smart kids said Trump was finished, that he would be eaten alive by the voracious monster of The Tapes, that even his most ardent supporters would be forced to abandon him with tears of shame and apology, there he was — answering questions, scoring points, even going after Hillary Clinton on her character in light of Benghazi, the email scandals and her aggressiveness toward her husband’s accusers.
And when it was all over, there was running mate Mike Pence, who had apparently recovered from the Friday vapors, congratulating Trump on Twitter: “Proud to stand with you.” And there was Chuck Todd, on Trump-hating MSNBC: “This is the best Trump you’ll ever see at a debate … He fired up the Trump base.”
That would be the base that was surely headed for the exits all weekend, if you listened to the pundit class. Real events again intervened.
Trump still has an uphill climb. But with four weeks to go and a third debate next week, he will be focusing on actual policies. If Hillary Clinton and her fan base continue to dwell on old bus banter with Billy Bush, they will be seen as unwilling to engage on things that genuinely matter to the presidency.
After the first debate, even his supporters said Trump needed to do far better. After this past weekend, it became clear he needed to extinguish a potentially fatal crisis.
He achieved both.
Mark Davis, who hosts a radio show in North Texas, is a special contributor to the Dallas Morning News.
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