Post Un-Presidential Debate Wisdom

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


There’s an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

And we do. This is an election season as brutal, polarized, nasty (and vulgar) as any we’ve ever seen. The second presidential debate is a case in point.

Donald Trump, reeling from the October Surprise video, pretty much managed to change the subject. Where he was uncomfortable and on the defensive in the first debate, he was aggressive, offensive and discomfiting in this debate. At times, he seems to be talking in tongues–about ISIS, e-mails, etc. At other times, he appeared to be following the “spaghetti strategy” of political debate: No matter what the question, just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. It is doubtful that Trump picked up any new voters, but he probably re-energized his hard core base and managed to belie, at least for now, the impression of a sinking ship.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, played it safe. This was a risk-averse performance that was aimed at avoiding mistakes and giving Trump plenty of rope. She threw no new grenades and avoided entangling herself in Trump’s nasty attacks, other than making it clear that they were all fact free. (BTW-did anyone notice that neither candidate even mentioned the Clinton or Trump Foundation?) Clinton certainly appeared more presidential, but not as much in control as she was the first time out.

Trump’s gamesmanship in bringing a quartet of Bill Clinton’s female accusers to the debate amounted to very little. Again, the Hillary haters loved it, but it appeared to be more of a diversionary tactic–or a failed head game against Clinton–than anything else. AWKWAAARD!!!

The debate had far less impact on this campaign than Friday’s “locker room” video. Trump’s own words have virtually guaranteed a massive loss among women voters and led to a scrambling among Republican officials and vulnerable down-ballot candidates to distance themselves from their staggering nominee. There is no apparent scenario for Trump to get much over 40% of the popular vote in November, and that could translate into a Clinton landslide.   In addition, the odds on Republicans keeping control of the Senate have taken a big hit and even the seemingly impregnable House majority may be in play.

Because of his smooth performance in the VP debate, outshining the first Trump debate appearance, Mike Pence has been touted as the GOP front-runner for 2020. Not so fast. First there’s the backlash from that video, which has begun to splatter the Evangelical Pence. Then, the last losing GOP VP nominee to top the ticket was Bob Dole and he had to wait 20 years.   And after Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980, his V.P., Walter Mondale, got the Democratic nomination in 1984 and, like Dole, got trounced in the general election. The last losing VP candidate to reach the oval office was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After a defeat in November, Pence would be out of office, with no fund-raising base or forum for visibility. He is an icon of the Christian right, but it is doubtful that he can parlay only that into the Republican nomination. And then there is the question of whether the GOP nomination will be worth anything at all, given the internecine warfare now raging within the party.

More and more, this campaign takes on the characteristics of a daytime soap opera. Stay tuned for the next improbable episode. For “These are the Days of Our Lives.”

 

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