If unexpected events have not had the annoying habit of roiling the Hillary Clinton campaign and still could do so, it's all over bar the shouting for Donald Trump after the Pussygate video crashed the Republican party with a Godzilla-like vengeance barely 48 hours before last night's second presidential debate, a tawdry street fight in which Trump wobbled between conspiracy theories, threats, glowering and rage while Clinton struggled to keep her dignity.
The first debate on September 26 had been Trump's last best opportunity to prove he was more than an intemperate, truth-fracturing sleazebag and Clinton's last best opportunity to try to seal the deal with undecided voters, so expectations for the second debate already were subterranean. After all, Trump had made a fool of himself during the inaugural debate and then went on a bender of intemperate outbursts while Clinton had been cooly presidential and then went on to widen her lead in the hitherto too-close-for-comfort horse race while quietly packing away swing-state electoral votes.
Then came the hottest of hot-mic videos, confirming that the Republican nominee is a sexual predator and leading to a flood of calls for him to drop out before he takes GOP control of Congress down with him, and most extraordinarily an announcement on Monday by House Speaker Paul Ryan, perhaps the most powerful Republican, that he would no longer defend or campaign for Trump, in effect conceding defeat for his party.
The sense of schadenfreude since the video went viral has been at times overwhelming to the point of asphyxia.
People who care about the future of the republic -- and if you are reading this then you do care -- have watched with dismay and then horror through spring and summer as Trump took over a party whose leaders were confronted with the nightmarish reality that they had become victims of their own hubris, putting the White House even further out of reach, but nevertheless allowed Trump to diddle them like extras in a bad porn flick.
The forces that Trump has unleashed through his Make America Great campaign, primarily aggrieved white men, and the post-video blowback primarily led by woman Republican congressfolk more accustomed to taking a back seat are squaring off in a collision unprecedented in the 224 year history of American presidential campaigns.
Looming around the next twist or turn are unknown, uncharted, unpredictable and potentially destructive consequences. This will remain the case at least until Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell ceases playing the repugnant game of rejecting Trump's words but not his candidacy and joins Ryan, and running mate Mike Pence abandons him altogether.
There is little expectation both those things will happen and even less that the ever defiant Trump will drop out, meaning that this sordid soap opera will drag on through the mud for another four agonizing weeks with new attempts by him to try to humiliate Clinton and the likelihood of more damaging exposes about his seamy past.
While Clinton was doing last-minute prepping for the town hall-style debate, Trump mocked the Republicans calling for him to quit in a storm of tweets.
Trump then hosted a short news conference with Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, who renewed claims that they were sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. A fourth woman attacked Hillary Clinton for her role as a court-appointed attorney decades ago when she defended the woman's alleged assailant on child rape charges. Trump, never one to miss an opportunity to take the low road, invited the women to the debate in an effort to embarrass the Clintons.
Clinton had smartly given no interviews about or made further comments on the video over the weekend. But she wasted little time in addressing Trump's fitness for the presidency before an audience of tens of millions of people, including his daughter, Ivanka, whom he had given shock jock Howard Stern permission to call "a piece of ass."
When co-host Anderson Cooper of CNN obliged Clinton by asking Trump about the raunchy three-minute video, he first claimed that Cooper had misunderstood what was said on it, then launched into one of his many sniffle-puntuated word salad non-sequiters, as opposed to the crisp and lawyerly policy prescriptions Clinton offered throughout much of the debate.
"I am embarrassed by it," Trump replied briefly, "But it's locker room talk and one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS."
Clinton responded: "What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn't represent who he is, but I think it's clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is."
Trump then quickly pivoted to Clinton's husband, who was sitting in the front row, his accusers a few rows behind him.
"Bill Clinton did far worse" than me, Trump said. "Never been anybody in history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women. So you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously."
Clinton refused to take the bait.
"When I hear something like that I am reminded of what my friend Michelle Obama advised us all: 'When they go low, you go high,' " Clinton said, referring to the first lady.
She passed up several opportunities to pound Trump more vigorously, notably on the wholesale defection of Republican officeholders from his campaign, and did not push back particularly hard against Trump's abuse allegations.
"Everything he said was absolutely false but I'm not surprised," Clinton said. "I'm told it would be impossible to be fact-checking Donald all the time."
Trump merely glowered, and then a few moments later ripped into Clinton over her 33,000 deleted emails from when she was secretary of state and proclaimed he would order his attorney general to name a special prosecutor to investigate her.
He knocked Clinton over her paid speeches to Wall Street firms, the subject of damaging leaks that have been overshadowed by the Pussygate video. Clinton's defense, citing Abraham Lincoln as having said one thing to one group and another to another group, was cringe inducing.
"It's just awfully good that somebody with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country," Clinton eventually retorted.
"Because you'd be in jail!" Trump countered. And so it went.
Clinton later did make a snide but passing remark about Trump's eroding support from GOP leaders.
"Okay, Donald, I know you're into big diversions tonight, anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it's exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you," but she didn't follow up on what is Trump's biggest vulnerability beyond his temperament -- his damage to the GOP brand and down-ticket candidates.
It was Cooper and not Clinton who brought up Trump's odd-couple status with running mate Mike Pence, who remained silent over much of the weekend and canceled a fundraiser today as he tries to distance himself from Trump, whose campaign spokeswoman insists that rumors he may quit are false.
Cooper noted that Pence had suggested last week that there needs to be a greater U.S. military presence in Syria to counter strongman Bashar al-Assad.
"He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree, I disagree," Trump shot back in throwing Pence under the bus while describing Assad in near-heroic terms because he is fighting ISIS.
Clinton's most effective pushback was over Trump's failure to apologize to minorities, immigrants and women. Trump responded by promising vengeance for people who would attack the homeland, but Clinton let it go at that. She also failed to use her apology for the "basket of deplorables" remark as a springboard for reminding viewers of Trump's deep-seated prejudices.
It was a Muslim woman in the audience who asked perhaps the best question -- and few from the audience were particularly noteworthy -- about how the candidates would deal with Islamaphobia.
Clinton's answer was eloquent, while Trump hemmed and hawed over whether he still called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. When told that Pence had said the ban was no longer operable and co-host Martha Raddatz of ABC News challenged him to be specific, he replied that the policy "is something that, in some form, has morphed into an extreme vetting from certain areas of the world."
Raddatz pressed Trump, but he slithered out from under her question as he did many others while complaining repeatedly that Cooper and Raddatz were ganging up on him.
And it was Trump who repeatedly stepped on the moderators when they spoke, interrupted Clinton and made obvious efforts to hog the camera while acting menacing as he paced back and forth across the stage, a tactic that should have been stopped by the moderators but was not. An electric shock collar is probably the only thing that would have worked.
Seeming to gain confidence as the night went on, Trump tried to stanch the bleeding to his campaign by pretending between bouts of anger to be self effacing by peddling the tired establishment Republican bromides of reducing taxes, repealing Obamacare and shredding regulations, but he fooled no one and yet again was his own worst enemy.
"Everything Trump touches dies," said a Republican consultant, something which Paul Ryan has belatedly realized, which of course resulted in a slashing rebuke from Trump. Indeed, Trump has damaged far more than his own improbable chances to become president in diminishing the Republican Party and the careers of an entire generation of party leaders who have kept excusing his behavior.
POLITIX UPDATE IS WRITTEN BY SHAUN MULLEN, A VETERAN JOURNALIST AND BLOGGER FOR WHOM THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS HIS 12th SINCE 1968. CLICK HERE FOR AN INDEX OF PREVIOUS COLUMNS.
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