CNN commentators and guest analysts offer their take on the 2016 presidential election’s outcome. The views expressed are their own.
David Gergen: Trump blows a big one
Whatever chance Donald Trump still had of capturing the White House largely evaporated Sunday night in his second debate with Hillary Clinton.
Coming off the worst 10 days of any campaign in recent history, Trump desperately needed a win in order to reverse his slide in the polls. He was indeed better than in the first debate and she was not as commanding. Even so, he blew his opportunity for victory in the first 20 minutes and could never fully recover. CNN’s poll found that by 57-34%, a majority of voters watching them thought she got the best of him.
His loss came through a series of bizarre moments. The first was his surprise pre-debate appearance with four female accusers of Bill Clinton. While a case can be made for re-hearing their claims of long ago, the event seemed like a stunt and Trump never made real use of it in the debate.
But more damning still was the way he handled the disgusting video from 11 years ago in which he made vulgar sexual remarks. Trump could possibly have achieved a measure of forgiveness if he had issued a sincere, thoughtful apology about his past as well as some ugly incidents in this campaign. But his apology was limited in scope, seemed slightly dismissive, and went off track when he mixed ISIS into the conversation.
Adding insult to injury, he then went into an incredulous rant about Hillary’s deleted emails. It was an entirely legitimate attack until he vowed that if elected, he would “instruct” his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue her and that if he were President today, she would be in jail.
Say what? Those are the way tin-pot dictators act, jailing their political opponents. If he had done a half hour studying up (something that seems beyond him), he would know that under the law, a president can request – but not order – the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor and Justice must then make a decision independent from White House control. Trump has a strange tropism toward Richard Nixon, forgetting that such safeguards were put in place precisely because of his abuses of power.
Overall, Trump’s debate performance may have given heart to his base supporters, stopping his slide, but did little to bring new voters into the fold, especially women. Voter preferences are now hardening, and more trouble could lie ahead.
In the next few days, we will learn whether the RNC and other GOP stalwarts rally behind him or pull more plugs. We will see, too, whether he and his vice presidential pick, Michael Pence, patch up their differences.
Having told moderator Anderson Cooper that he never actually groped or assaulted any women the way he bragged about in the tape, Trump’s apology also leaves him wide open to new women contradicting his claims and to new tapes of scurrilous remarks.
Hillary’s team shouldn’t yet measure the drapes in the Oval Office, but I bet their transition folks are now working with fresh energy. Victory – and perhaps a big one – seems almost within their grasp.
Errol Louis: Now, the real pivot?
Trump struggled with the town hall-style format, frequently looming over Clinton as she answered questions, interrupting her frequently and bickering with moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper over whether he got enough time to respond to questions.
At other points his assertions were downright shocking, such as his blunt threat to, as president, have a special investigator look into Hillary Clinton’s emails and potentially jail her. He also admitted not having paid federal income tax for decades, implying that other wealthy Americans do the same and blaming Clinton for not reforming the tax code during her years in the Senate.
Another startling moment was Trump’s admission he and his running mate, Mike Pence, haven’t discussed key Syria policies and actually disagree on the key issue of whether to launch military strikes at the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a direct contradiction of what Pence said at the recent vice presidential candidates’ debate.
Trump did well enough to keep his campaign alive and give hope to his supporters – but his debate performance did little to counter Clinton’s main angle of attack: that he’s simply not qualified or prepared to serve as president.
Tara Setmayer: Trump’s strategy – Attack, attack, attack
Donald Trump’s behavior during the first 20 minutes of the debate was cringe worthy. To no one’s surprise there was no sign of the “humility” or “contrition” many, including his own supporters, called for in response to the devastating video released on Friday showing Trump bragging about groping women in the most vile terms. Instead, he chose to pivot and go directly on the attack against Hillary Clinton every chance he got.
At times, Trump brought the level of discourse embarrassingly low with all sense of presidential decorum thrown out the window. Gone were the pleasantries and respect with Trump referring to Mrs. Clinton as a pronoun (she, her) throughout the evening. Clearly this was done on purpose to diminish Clinton. She handled it like a seasoned professional, making her look like the adult in the room. Trump once again demonstrated why he’s temperamentally unfit for the presidency.
However, once the conversation turned to more substantive topics, Trump was able to focus more on Clinton’s failed record, forcing her to play defense for much of the night, particularly on her emails, Obamacare and energy policy.
Trump did falter badly on Syria. He seemingly sided with Putin over his own running mate, emphatically saying he disagreed with Mike Pence on the policy and hadn’t even spoken to him about the crisis in Syria.
Heading into this debate, Trump’s campaign was possibly mortally wounded. He performed well enough to stop the bleeding, for now. But did he do anything to close the gap with key swing state constituencies he needs to win? Doubtful. Fortunately for Trump, Hillary Clinton is such a flawed candidate, she was unable to land the knockout blow. This one was a draw.
Tara Setmayer is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and a CNN political commentator.
Tim Stanley: Will Trump’s good night make a difference?
Donald Trump had a good night. It started poorly because it had to start poorly; discussion of his “locker room” banter was bound to be personally embarrassing. He sounded like he was giving a legal deposition. When Clinton and the moderators demanded greater clarity, he lost his temper and called Bill Clinton an abuser of women. I suspect he didn’t intend to do that. The man has skin as thin as gossamer.
But after that the debate turned to Clinton, and Trump’s constant attacks were effective. The problem is that while Trump is an eccentric candidate, Clinton is a poor one. She struggled to explain why she was running, overused cliches and gave lawyerly answers that sounded like she was squirming. She even let Trump tell a good gag at her expense about Abraham Lincoln.
But how do we judge victory in this unpredictable climate? For Trump it will be warm words from senior Republicans and an end to GOP withdrawals from his campaign. That does not spell victory in November.
Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.”
Sally Kohn: A depressing spectacle
I’m depressed that Donald Trump could be caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and try to laugh it all off in a debate as “locker room talk.” But what were the debate moderators supposed to do Sunday night? Spend more than a few minutes conveying America’s utter disgust at this latest example of Trump’s pattern of misogyny? Nah, a few minutes is enough I guess. So on to policy, right?
No, because almost as depressing was Trump’s repeated unwillingness to actually answer the questions that were posed to him. How would Trump ensure that pre-existing conditions are still covered by health insurance without some sort of universal coverage mandate? We don’t know, he didn’t answer.
What would Trump do about the refugee crisis in Syria? We don’t know, he didn’t answer — twice. Question after question, Trump said nothing. I mean, words came out of his mouth but they barely formed sentences and they definitely didn’t form thoughts. He basically vomited fragments of nothingness all over Hillary Clinton and America. And like Clinton, we all just had to sit there — frustrated and annoyed.
What’s especially depressing is that our media, let alone our democracy, seems ill-equipped to handle anything like Trump. Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper tried, but fact checking Trump doesn’t work because Trump doesn’t care about facts. In fact, he denies he’s lying as he’s lying and then, for extra audacity, accuses everyone else of being liars. I keep waiting for the ghost of George Orwell to show up on the debate stage and bite Trump on the ankles.
Donald Trump is a perverse man who is perverting not only our democracy but the very concept of truth. He tried to win the debate just like one wins a limbo contest — by lowering the bar. That should depress all of us.
Sally Kohn, a CNN political commentator, is an activist and columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. She supports Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
S.E. Cupp: A night of missed opportunities
After the past 48 hours, it’s difficult to determine on what basis either candidate would win Sunday night’s debate. Donald Trump was emerging out of the fallout from a blistering, embarrassing, potentially fatal recording of him suggesting he’s used his celebrity to sexually assault women. In the hours before the debate, he gathered four women who claim they’d been victims of either Hillary Clinton’s husband or her to exploit their pain for his own personal gain. Clinton, on the other hand, suffered a significant, if overshadowed, leak about her previously private speeches.
But it’s safe to say, Clinton came in with the advantage, and Trump came in with an almost impossible recovery mission. He did little to recover, but it’s also hard to see where she used that advantage effectively.
He was undisciplined and puerile, whining about the moderators treating him unfairly, which is never a winning strategy. He missed obvious openings to attack Clinton, for example, on the revelations she’s advocated for open borders in those private speeches. He lurked behind her uncomfortably while she spoke, a visual he was either unaware of or maybe actually totally aware of.
But while Clinton was cool and collected, and seemed far more comfortable than he did, she had a clear strategy to wait for Trump to hang himself, instead of going for the jugular on the easy issue. She had an opportunity tonight to end his campaign for good, either by baiting him into a trap or just throwing a knockout. I’m not sure she did either.
Undecided and independent voters will have to decide if they respect her for taking the high ground, or judge her for failing to more aggressively call him out.
S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News.
Jeff Yang: Nothing prepared us for this
Every slur and slander from 30 years of unhinged Clinton hatred was dragged before the audience of “uncommitted voters” (is there really such a thing as a Muslim American uncommitted voter?). None of the attacks stuck, because they seemed nasty and irrelevant, and put Trump in the position of being a barker for a particularly unpleasant sideshow.
What did stick was the impression that even a modulated Trump is entirely unfit for office. His fascistic vow to investigate and jail Clinton upon election; his throwing of his running mate Mike Pence under the runaway Trump Train; his inability to directly answer any of the moderators’ questions – none of these could’ve given comfort to members of his party that a Trump win would be anything but Pyrrhic.
And as for the moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz: Did someone slip PEDs into their drinking water? This is the first time we’ve seen this kind of muscular, unyielding and disciplined questioning from the floorkeepers at a debate, and the demand that the candidates actually engage the topics being asked was bracing and refreshing. More of the same at debate 3, please…if there is one after this utter fiasco of a week for the Trump campaign.
Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a frequent contributor to radio shows including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.”
Nayyera Haq: Trump failed to bury the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape
It was impossible to tune into this debate without thinking about the leaked tape of Trump’s comments about women. So it’s a good thing the moderators brought it up at the get-go, giving Trump a chance to reiterate his apology, let Clinton get a jab in, and move his campaign forward.