Normally, presidential candidates that veer off into political analysis end up with egg on their faces, but Donald Trump delivers a pretty solid breakdown of last night’s debate. He tells ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in this clip from Good Morning America that Hillary Clinton won because she “did what she had to do,” while the other Democrats on stage inexplicably decided to take it easy on her. Trump especially criticized Bernie Sanders for providing Hillary “a very good moment”:
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“She got through it fine,” he said by phone this morning. “It was a very kind debate, very gentle. She came out the winner.”
Trump said Sen. Bernie Sanders should have attacked Clinton more and that their on-stage handshake was a mistake. “I think that he’s losing by quite a bit; he shouldn’t have done it,” Trump said of the Sanders-Clinton handshake prompted by Sanders’ saying Americans are tired of hearing about the “damn emails” that continues to dog her campaign.
That was a curious move, and it’s not surprising to see Trump focus on it as a sign of weakness in Sanders. Whether he intended it or not, it sent the message that Hillary would end up being the nominee, and that Sanders would play along when she eventually sends him out to pasture. It’s all the more curious, coming after Hillary’s pounding of Sanders on gun control and on capitalism, which may have been the most surprising moment of the night from Hillary. Trump doesn’t mention it, but Sanders’ lack of response to those two attacks sent the same message. Sanders isn’t in it to win it — he’s in it to score a few points and return to the back bench whence he came.
National Journal’s Ron Fournier thinks Hillary won, too — mainly through deception:
The embattled front-runner won herself a news cycle or two, because she stretched the truth and played to a friendly audience. It won’t always be so.
It took more than an hour before CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Clinton about the covert email system she established as secretary of State in defiance of federal regulations, subverting the Freedom of Information Act, thwarting congressional oversight, and jeopardizing U.S. secrets. And, even then, her chief rival offered Clinton cover. …
Professional Democrats and the party’s strongest voters are certainly tired of hearing about the email scandal, but it’s not going to go away—not with the FBI investigating whether confidential information was mishandled under Clinton’s system, and not with independent voters losing faith in Clinton’s word.
Character and judgment are gateway political issues. An untrustworthy candidate might check all your policy boxes, might tickle your ideological buttons, and might even grind away long enough to get your vote—but you’re not going to like it.
That is Clinton’s problem. Like it was in 2008, her character is the issue that threatens to consume all others.
In other words, she won a brief respite, not the battle. But what she also won was a concession from everyone else on the stage last night that they won’t attack her on that most vulnerable point in her armor. Only Lincoln Chafee made a passing and oblique reference to being scandal-free; the rest of the field refused to engage on Clinton’s character. They had an opportunity to burst the Hillary bubble, but instead they crawled inside of it and pretending it didn’t exist.
As Fournier notes, that won’t be the case if/when Hillary has to compete against the Republican nominee. But for one night, Hillary won in large part because her opponents declined to compete, and Sanders all but conceded on stage. Trump got this one exactly right.