Perhaps in a gubernatorial or mayoral race somewhere, sometime, there’s been a candidate debate immediately preceded by a scandal so heinous that you had to wonder if the afflicted politician would even show up. But it’s never happened at the presidential level — until now. The debate in St. Louis began with a discussion of Trump’s potentially disqualifying video and proceeded with Trump’s breathtakingly horrible counterattack on Bill Clinton’s treatment of women — with Clinton’s alleged victims seated by his campaign, right there in the audience. At one point, rumors were circulating on Twitter (subsequently debunked) that Trump’s running mate had decided to withdraw from the ticket.
By the end of the debate, conservatives were calling Trump the winner and Pence was tweeting his congratulations. And since Trump’s grand objective was surviving this debate, he did win. He’s not going to be forced to cough up the Republican presidential nomination just under a month before the election. That has to be the lowest debate threshold any presidential candidate has ever faced.
When the whole thing ended with a saccharine exchange of compliments between Trump and Clinton, it was possible, for a moment, to forget that earlier, the Republican presidential nominee had accused the 42nd president of the United States of being a rapist, called for the jailing of the Democratic presidential nominee, and not quite responded to a moderator’s questioning on whether he had admitted to committing sexual assault in the Access Hollywood video that exploded into the news two days ago.
What Trump mostly did to get through the debate was to go to the freezer and pull out every piece of red meat at his disposal: Obamacare, Benghazi, emails, Iran, “radical Islamic terrorism,” and over and over again berating the moderators. He did what he needed to do to get “the base” cheering him. And that will do two crucial things for him.
First, it will likely keep him from a free-fall in the polls, which looked pretty likely going into it. He’ll still take a big hit when everybody being polled has seen the famous video, but it won’t be catastrophic.
And second, it will remind panicky Republicans who are thinking about disassociating themselves from him (and perhaps fantasizing about dumping him) that they are courting a long, bloody intra-party civil war if they go too far. Yes, congressional Republicans may soon change their campaign messages to emphasize their determination to “rein in Hillary Clinton,” which will encourage ticket-splitting and hurt Trump. But as the initial panic subsides, the stampede to reject or defenestrate him as the nominee will subside as well.
That’s not to say Trump can still win, barring something as weird as what we’ve seen in the last 48 hours. But those who have hoped that he’s about be booted from the ticket, or subjected to a historic humiliation at the polls unlike anything we’ve ever seen, are going to be disappointed.
What Democrats may realistically hope is that, by remaining on the ticket, Trump has now put a Democratic House as well as a Senate back on the table. Since a Democratic Congress may be the only thing that could enable a President Hillary Clinton to achieve much as president, that’s a very big deal.