In debate, Trump’s scorched earth vs. down-to-earth Clinton

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton confront each other during the second presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton confront each other during the second presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri. Bloomberg

Donald Trump had one job at Sunday night’s debate: Persuade the group of undecideds in the room and beyond that his misogynistic bragging in a video that surfaced last week has absolutely no bearing on his fitness to be president.

News flash: Donald Trump is unfit to to be president. He ducked, dodged, backtracked, spoke in ridiculously broad generalities — Hillary Clinton was a “disaster” as a U.S. senator — took responsibility for absolutely nothing and threatened to put her in prison over those emails. It was more of his scorched-earth approach, based on the belief that he will make life better for Americans simply because he says so. That said, he was quicker on his feet and relentlessly went after Ms. Clinton, taking every opportunity to brand Ms. Clinton an insider in the pocket of the banks and the political elite inside the Beltway, which indeed might sway some his way.

It shouldn’t.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton argued over leaked tapes and deleted emails at the second presidential debate in St. Louis on Sunday night, but somewhat astonishingly managed to find something nice to say about one another in the end.

They got down to the 800-pound gorilla in the room right off the bat: that 2005 video aired ’round the world. Stunning to some ears for its smirking explicitness of how Mr. Trump puts the moves on women, it led him to grudgingly concede over the weekend that it was wrong, and he apologized.

But come on, the attitude on display was no one-off. Miss Piggy, anyone? Yet Mr. Trump asserted that no one “has more respect for women than I do.” Then, he took off after Ms. Clinton’s husband, Bill, branding him something like the worst abuser ever. And the women he is alleged to have abused were in the audience at Mr. Trump’s invitation. It was an unseemly publicity stunt meant to distract from his own deep flaws.

Mr. Clinton’s past behavior on this score might be just as unattractive, but he’s not running for president, his wife is.

Throughout, Ms. Clinton sounded like a pragmatic tough guy who can back up her swagger with smart action. And when he wasn’t sounding like a petulant child because the moderators interrupted him, he sounded like a tough guy talking large but just not equipped or disciplined enough to get the job — any job — done.

His strategy in Syria? Extraordinarily, he broke with his running mate Mike Pence. Ms. Clinton would arm the Kurds, among other practical policies to keep U.S. troops off the ground.

How is Mr. Trump a role model for Americans? We never quite heard, setting the theme for Mr. Trump’s night of evasiveness. But we did hear that “this is a great country,” followed up by the contention that he’s going to “make America great again.” Which is it, Mr. Trump?

His ban on Muslims? Well, now it’s called “extreme vetting.” And Humayun Khan, the American Muslim soldier who died in Iraq, and whose parents Mr. Trump dismissed after they spoke at the Democratic convention, now is, “a hero” who would not have been killed since, Mr. Trump said, he didn’t support the war. Actually, he did.

Mr. Trump promised so much to so many — blacks and Latinos — but again from his heartless what-do-you-have-to-lose? stance. And that, too, was a major difference between the two. Ms. Clinton made the most of the chance to differentiate herself from her ivory-tower opponent. She made clear that she has spent her professional life in the trenches at home and abroad. She was at her strongest in making the case: creating a children’s health insurance program, securing healthcare for first responders after 9/11; advocating for women’s rights, negotiating a treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons and on and on.

Too bad she was not as forceful — she never has been — at swatting back against the email scandal that just won’t die. She’s got to make a more persuasive case that she is in the clear. Mr. Trump may have stopped some of his campaign’s bleeding Sunday. Now the broader harm he poses to this nation must be stanched, too.