Grace Under Pressure?

While sensible people are focused on the Annapolis Boat Show, the weather or even Sunday night football, tens of millions of us will tune in tonight to the second Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Second debates in a series of three are not generally all that consequential. But this one could really matter, especially given Trump’s vulgar taped comments on women and his sexual prowess.
Tonight’s encounter at Washington University in St. Louis will establish whether the Republican nominee can control himself and finally seem presidential, and whether the Democratic nominee can keep her cool under pressure and still make her points. A smile now and then wouldn’t hurt either of them.
The first debate at Hofstra University was the most fractious, chaotic and dystopian Presidential encounter in recent memory. In the aftermath, sports metaphors were overworked but apt. Hillary Clinton clearly scored a TKO, if not a knockout, and got a significant bump in the polls in the process. She nailed Trump on race and gender issues and demonstrated a grasp of foreign and security policy that left him flailing about.
Clinton deftly turned Trump’s graceless attack on her “stamina” around and used it to question his. Some of her better lines (“Trumped-up trickle-down”) sounded rehearsed and shopworn, but they made a point.
Trump was focused at first, scoring points on trade and the economy and repeatedly characterizing Clinton as part of the team responsible for current shortcomings at home and abroad. His implicit message: Hillary and the Democrats got you into this mess; I’m the change agent who can get you out.
But, as the debate went on — watch for this tonight — Trump lost his focus, repeated himself , was belligerently defensive about not paying taxes and his bankruptcies and wandered far afield, ascribing the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to an unidentified 400-pound man texting in his pajamas. How’s that again?
Lester Holt, the journeyman moderator, went missing for periods of time and let the candidates punch and counter-punch. Andy Borowitz, The New Yorker’s resident funnyman, even tweeted a missing-persons alert on Holt at one point. But Holt’s restraint also served to reveal the candidates’ competitive instincts.
Tonight, the moderators will be Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, no shrinking violets, who will likely be more assertive. But half the questions are to come from the audience in the town hall format. We’ll have to see how that affects the candidates.
The forecast for tonight’s debate is stormy. Both candidates know there is a lot at stake, and both have ammunition they didn’t use in the first exchange.
Trump can resurrect the “pay-for-play” allegations about the Clinton Foundation, and charge that foreign donors got special treatment from the former Secretary of State in exchange for their contributions. He has already promised to bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities, even though in the first debate with Chelsea Clinton in the first row he said “It’s inappropriate…not nice.” Apparently it is nice enough when you are behind in the polls in the key swing states.
Clinton has plenty of fodder to use against Trump if she chooses: his latest bragging about his way with women, the undisputed reports that he lost a breathtaking $916 million in one tax year and likely paid no federal income taxes for nearly two decades, and his continued refusal to release his current tax returns. There is the Trump University fraud, the Trump Foundation scam, his more outrageous campaign promises to wall off Mexico, bar Muslims and deport 12 million undocumented immigrants. The list goes on.
Entertainment suggestion: watch carefully tonight when Clinton gets under Trump’s skin, as she is likely to do; watch his reaction and what it does to his train of thought and debate strategy. Then imagine how he might respond to a similar challenge in the Oval Office.
Increasingly, this bizarre campaign is coming down to questions of temperament and emotional stability. Debates reveal those characteristics better than anything. By the end of 90 minutes tonight, we will have a deeper insight into the candidates’ personalities and their grace under pressure — or lack thereof.
Tune in. You can always record Sunday night football.