Mixed Win for Trump

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 41-

This week:

  • Trump steps it up in second debate
  • Groping comments won’t go away easily
  • Evan Bayh makes a hell of a lot more money than you do

President 2016

Second debate: Trump won the second debate. Not all polls confirm this, but in terms of the debate itself, he just did. (More on the context of the debate below.)

You can chalk it up to low expectations, or to the fact that Hillary Clinton is such a terrible candidate, which she really is. But that’s the way it happened. The gamblers certainly thought so.

Trump didn’t necessarily win big enough to change the course of the race — he simply got the better of Clinton in the debate. At times he was witty, accusing her of blaming Abraham Lincoln for her statements leaked from one of her private, well-remunerated Wall Street speeches.

Perhaps he went overboard promising in a presidential debate to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Clinton if he won the election. (Of course, Democrats were only recently cheering the criminalization of political opposition when they indicted Rick Perry for vetoing a bill as governor, and when they persecuted Scott Walker and much of his staff in a politically motivated investigation that the federal courts ultimately had to stop.)

Most importantly, Trump avoided any sort of meltdown. He even showed a surprising grasp of some issues. He did well discussing Obamacare, even if he was a bit vague about what he would replace it with. He aimed at and seemed to hit well with a key target audience when he discussed the need to bring back coal and steel production in the U.S.

Groping comments: But here’s Trump’s problem: As with the first debate, which Clinton won, there’s more to it than who gets the most debating points. There’s a context to every debate, and the context for this one will not simply vanish due to his victory on points.

By the same token, it is important to point out that Trump really needed a good performance at a moment when more and more Republicans were backing away from him and talk was even bubbling up about him possibly dropping out. He got that at least, and thus survives at least until the next debate.

Trump went into the weekend dealing with a problem he had created for himself unknowingly in 2005. His secretly taped conversation with Billy Bush was reported by the Washington Post on Friday. In that discussion, he proudly talked about how, given his fame and fortune, he could grab the crotch of random women unexpectedly and thus successfully seduce them. Despite being recently married to his third and current wife, he specifically discussed his attempts to seduce a married woman by taking her furniture shopping.

What he admits to describing — and which he now insists he never actually did — is the behavior of a sexual predator. It was bad enough that Melania Trump didn’t want to do a join appearance with him. That could mean more than one thing — for example, she might have perceived that such a joint appearance could backfire against him, not that it would be humiliating for her. But either way, that underscores the gravity of the situation and the fragile, vulnerable position in which it puts his campaign.

Trump responded to this revelation with a televised apology, and then by attacking Bill Clinton for behavior not unlike what he had described in his own taped conversation. His pre-debate press conference, with victims of the former president, gave some hints as to where he might go (and did briefly, although surprisingly without overdoing it) during the debate.

It’s anyone’s guess whether this has the effect of confusing the issue and helping move past the news cycle, or whether it will backfire by equating him with Bill Clinton.

The bottom line Trump’s victory was underscored by the need for Clinton’s team to find very petty complaints afterward, such as where and when he stood up during the town hall themed debate. But the fact is, if Trump had really lost, it would have been pretty obvious. It would have been unavoidable, given the context.

Still, his victory isn’t going to quiet questions about his character that the taped conversation about groping raised. The risk Trump runs going forward is that more tapes and more complaints from more women could emerge in the coming weeks.

Trump was trailing in the polls going into the weekend, and this debate probably wasn’t enough to change that. But it probably did prevent a death-spiral for his campaign based on that single taped conversation. The longer-term (and by that, we mean a week or more) question is just how much dirt there is for the Clinton machine to unearth. There are hints that many more Trump tapes exist, although there is no hard evidence so far that they do.

An even bigger problem: Did this debate actually expand Trump’s appeal beyond the 40 percent base that he seems to draw in nearly every election poll?

In any event, the most negative presidential campaign in American history is certainly living up to its potential. As we anticipated, the two highly unpopular nominees have little to do beyond attacking each other personally, and both of the debates so far have confirmed this.

Senate 2016

Indiana: Former Sen. Evan Bayh, D, has been gradually losing his polling advantage over Rep. Todd Young, R, ever since he jumped into the race after the Hoosier State’s May primary had selected a different nominee. This weekend’s filing of his income disclosures is highly unlikely to help his cause.

Bayh, who became a K Streeter after leaving the Senate in 2010, was already known to have become a lobbyist. And Republicans have been making this argument against him to anyone who will listen, to some effect. Bayh, they argue, went native in D.C. and lost touch with his home state. After all, he couldn’t even remember his “home” address in Indiana when asked, and none of his “neighbors” even realized he “lived” there.

But the sheer amount of money that Bayh has been raking in — $6 million since last January — is at a level that could make Hillary Clinton blush. Even his $400,000 in pay from Fox News for serving as a commentator is several times his state’s median income, but it’s only a small fraction of what he made. His positions on four corporate boards brought in $1.76 million. He got $2 million as an advisor to a private equity firm and the same amount again as a partner at his lobbying firm.

It’s impossible to imagine someone with his skills earning this kind of money except in the context that he is cashing in on his time in public service.

After just six years out of public life, Bayh is now worth up to $50 million. In a close race — and this race is being kept closer by Trump’s reasonably good numbers in the Hoosier State — this sort of thing could really make a difference.

One more thing. If Indiana comes off the table for Democratic Senate pickups, the Dems’ path to controlling the Senate becomes much more difficult. This is one to keep watching, no matter how the presidential race goes.