ST. LOUIS — After the first surreal minutes, after the inevitable question about Donald Trump’s latest scandal, after an uncomfortable exchange more about her husband than herself, the focus of the second presidential debate at last turned to Hillary Clinton.
What about the deleted emails? The Wall Street speeches? Benghazi? And a pointed question that drove right at what many voters see as her biggest vulnerability: Is it okay for a politician to be two-faced?
Clinton handled the questions in typical fashion, offering lengthy answers that may have sounded better to her than they did to others.
In response to the question of whether it’s okay to be two-faced, for instance, Clinton attempted to walk the audience through a damaging quote from a speech she’d given to bankers about the need for politicians to hold public and private positions.
She had remembered the quote, correctly, as a reference to the movie “Lincoln,” which at the time had inspired plenty of punditry about how presidential skullduggery was under-rated.
“It was a master class,” she said.
Trump mocked her and was able to use the response to raise questions about her lack of honesty. “She lied, and now she’s blaming the lie on the late great Abraham Lincoln,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
While the first Clinton-Trump debate began with an energized Trump and ended with him being rattled by Clinton’s needling, this one began with Trump appearing unsure of what to say and discovering ways to talk Clinton down. Clinton defended policies; Trump called them disasters.
It was a version of what had worked for him at rallies, even when the transcripts of what he said resembled word jumbles.
Scandals he’d forgotten to mention in the first debate, like the 2012 debacle in Benghazi, got their airtime.
In an alternate universe, Republicans would have been thrilled at the spectacle. In addition to Benghazi, Trump hammered Clinton on Syria, Obamacare, her handling of classified material — so many of the attack lines that the GOP has long dreamed of throwing in her face.
Yet, for all of Trump’s ability to go aggressively after Clinton, even saying she should be in jail, Sunday night’s debate was likely all the more frustrating for many Republicans who see their nominee as too damaged at this stage to effectively block her from the White House.
Time and again, unless the question focused specifically on scandal, Clinton tried to wrench the debate back to her comfort zone. The cameras were ready for Jerry Springer; Clinton kept throwing to C-SPAN.
But in many cases, the throw was a miss.
Clinton at times attempted to close the discussion of vulnerabilities by answering at a lawyerly length.
“After a year-long investigation, there is no evidence that anyone hacked the server I was using,” she said. “There is no evidence that anyone can point to at all — anyone who says otherwise has no basis — that any classified material ended up in the wrong hands.”
The answer was true, and the FBI’s high-profile investigation had made it true. But Trump, whose campaign is predicated on a Americans losing faith in the country’s governing norms, suggested that he would celebrate his election by sending a special prosecutor after the defeated Clinton. “Donald Trump’s highest moment,” reported the pollster Frank Luntz, who was monitoring a focus group.
But when Clinton could turn to policy, there was a ping-pong match between policy rundowns and — from Trump — a rattling-off of lines that had worked. Clinton was debating as previous presidential candidates typically have, unloading as much of their policy promises as they could before the cut-off. In previous years, debate audiences seemed to pine for it.
“Can we focus on the issues and not the personalities and the mud?” one audience member asked plaintively in the first-ever town hall debate, in 1992.
What became unclear, as Clinton spoke, was whether a point-by-point policy defense could still punch through. In previous town hall debates, policy questions were fairly generic, allowing candidates to run the ball. In St. Louis, the question on the Affordable Care Act was run through the prism of Bill Clinton’s description (quickly disavowed) of a coverage gap in the program as “the craziest thing” he’d ever heard.
Hillary Clinton chose to defend the law and pledge fixes to it.“The 170 million of us who get health insurance through our employees got big benefits,” she said. “Number one, insurance companies can’t deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Number two, no lifetime limits, which is a big deal if you have serious health problems. Number three, women can’t be charged more than men for our health insurance, which is the way it used to be before the Affordable Care Act. Number four, if you’re under 26, and your parents have a policy, you can be on that policy until the age of 26, something that didn’t happen before.”
This was the candidate who, as first lady in 1993, held a two-day “health care university” for members of Congress, and who had talked through possible reforms at countless “listening sessions.”
Trump responded by insisting that the ACA would “implode.”
The asymmetry between Clinton’s and Trump’s answers was revealed every time Trump interrupted. Clinton rarely did, sitting still even when Trump insisted she had “tremendous hate in her heart.” The closest Clinton came to a comeback followed Trump’s repeated insistence that she was “all talk, no action,” because she had not achieved her preferred tax cuts when she was a senator during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush.
“You know, under our constitution, presidents have something called veto power,” she said.
Late in the debate, Clinton seemed to miss an opportunity. Trump insisted that he was “self-funding” his campaign, making no mention of the flowering of super PACs (which he'd previously criticized) to support him, or the time that Trump and running mate Mike Pence now spend at fundraisers.
Clinton let that go, and instead promised the voter who’d started the round that she would defend the Second Amendment but close “the gun show loophole and online loophole,” policies that poll well.
Trump, whose policy ideas typically perform worse in polls than Clinton’s, had an easier time fitting them all into a popular package — change. But the events of the preceding 48 hours allowed Clinton to score on a far less wonky measure, one she’d struggled with in every campaign. Trump, who often pivoted from questioners to make the change argument, hardly tried to make an emotional connection.
Clinton tried whenever the opportunity arose. A question about Islamophobia was a prompt to say, “I’ve heard this question from a lot of Muslim Americans across our country.” A looser question about the campaign’s tone was Clinton’s cue for a story about an Ethiopian child who worried that Donald Trump would send him back across the ocean.
“He’s 10 years old now,” said Clinton. “This is the only country he has ever known.”
Trump could promise to change the country; Clinton could hope that viewers asked, “to what?”