Here’s how this debate is going to go:
Chris Wallace is going to let Trump off the hook by asking him questions that sound tough but generally allow him to dismiss accusations against him as politically motivated. Getting that out of the way as early as possible, Wallace will move on to subjects designed to get the debate on territory friendly to Republicans running downballot.
Wallace is also going to grill the hell out of Clinton, knowing that her lawyerly explanations of very complex issues—like the use of a private email server, or Middle East policy—make her sound squirrelly to voters predisposed to dislike her.
Keep in mind that the promised topics for the debate are:
Debt and entitlements
Foreign hot spots
Fitness to be President
Yes, there will be at least 15 minutes on the national debt during an election that is a national referendum on what percentage of the country is all-in for white nationalism. That is by design. It signals “serious subject of national import” to the brainless alter kockers who run the Commission On Presidential Debates and it soothes the troubled consciences of rich conservatives who are a bit put off by this Trump guy but still would really like to write some checks to the RNC.
So by the end we’ll have maybe 10 minutes of Trump saying that his accusers are full of shit, and then 70 minutes of Clinton saying, “Well actually Chris the thing you have to understand about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which I supported, is—” and Trump saying things about trade and infrastructure that almost sound plausible if you are not someone who spends any amount of time reading things about trade and infrastructure. (Trump will also, infuriatingly, go to Clinton’s left when Wallace demands that both of them pay fealty to the mighty centrist god Entitlement Cuts.)
After the debate, the usual idiots will say Trump did fine, and then polls will come out showing Hillary Clinton soundly beat him, and it won’t matter.
Let me play annoying pundit for a minute: I think there was a point, the Friday when the “pussy” tape came out, when there was a chance for an actual, all-out bloodbath, with a final result something like Trump 35, Hillary 55, which is why elected Republicans started jumping ship en masse. As you’ll note, that stopped by Sunday, partly thanks to Trump’s generally overlooked debate discipline—which amounts mainly to a superhuman ability to deflect gotcha questions and consistently return to a few topics he’s comfortable bullshitting about—but mostly because the debate’s format (and moderators) allowed him to move past the tape after the first 30 minutes, and the ingrained habits of the political press led them to treat the debate as a new chapter in the election instead of a direct continuation of the complete collapse of the Trump campaign. Once the pussy tape became a debate question, one addressed and then moved on from, the press treated it like a gaffe, albeit a particularly bad one, and not a sui generis event, an inescapable and uncontestable reveal of the monster behind the clown.
The Clinton campaign did itself no favors, admittedly. Perhaps her reluctance to go for the jugular in debate two was carefully focus group-tested, but it was still a lost opportunity, leaving that event without explicitly hammering home how uniquely disqualifying and horrific Trump’s behavior and worldview are.
However you apportion the blame, by Monday, everyone had moved on to the next thing, before the tape actually had a chance to settle in with an electorate that takes more than two (weekend) days to process campaign-changing news.
Of course, Trump has not had a good time of it since then, as the subsequent campaign media narrative involved numerous credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault, but at this point it seems like we’re looking at a “landslide” only by the modern standards of our very polarized and obstinate electorate—like a national popular vote of 42 percent Trump to 49 percent Clinton. (Which will be just enough justification for Republicans to spend four years denying that Clinton has a “mandate,” but that’s a subject for a later post.)
In other words, most habitual Republican voters are going to act like habitual Republican voters this year, and there is very little Democrats and the Clinton campaign can do over a few short weeks to change that, barring, I don’t know, the actual release of the rumored tape of Trump using racial slurs (which, if it doesn’t materialize, could become the liberal version of the Michelle Obama “whitey” tape, except for how it’s actually very plausible that it exists).
All of this is to say that there will be no kill shot—Hillary Clinton doesn’t do those, not in live debates—and the conservative machine, aided by a political press that only knows one way to cover an election, will stanch the bleeding. The presidential election is done, beyond a bit of trivia about which states might flip. If you want something to worry about every day, pay attention to Senate races instead, or simply contemplate the fact that nothing Donald Trump has said or done has been considered disqualifying by a portion of the American electorate large enough to elect safe majorities in most state legislatures and the House of Representatives.