Last night’s Presidential debate in St. Louis was a study in tactics versus strategy. Donald Trump was tactical; Hillary Clinton was strategic. Both achieved their goals.
Trump wanted to make it impossible for the Republicans to force him out as a result of his 2005 comments, unmasked on Friday, bragging about sexual assault. His tactic was to shore up his base, who most other Republican candidates this year fear will abandon them. He did that, relying on stump speech lines (‘put her in jail’).
His strategy for winning the election remains overwhelming force by inspiring tens of millions of voters outside his base to join the Trump Train. His tactics last night ran counter to that strategy.
By contrast, Clinton was not concerned with winning the debate (although the only overnight poll I’ve see so far–CNN’s–says she did. In fact, she was not concerned about knocking Trump because she knows that her path to victory is more certain with Trump than without him at this point.
It seems that she was content to let Trump claw his way back; his tactics supported her strategy.
He wanted to win the night. She cares about winning the election and so was content to let him score points.
At the same time, she scored some strategic points down-ticket. NBC News observes,
And it sets up a looming disaster for the GOP
Trump going “Full Breitbart” has definitely fired up his base (last night was what Trump operatives Steve Bannon and David Bossie had always dreamed about). And that creates a looming disaster for Republicans who need to win over non-Breitbart voters: How do you distance yourself from Trump — especially after those 2005 lewd comments — but avoid the wrath coming your way from the base? We’re sure quite a few Republicans were rooting for Trump to self-destruct last night and for Hillary Clinton to deliver a knockout blow. But Trump is still standing, and that is a big problem for downballot Republicans like Kelly Ayotte (in New Hampshire), Pat Toomey (in Pennsylvania), and Marco Rubio (in Florida).
I expect more of the same the rest of the way. Trump will do battle with the Republican party and with the Clinton campaign. It is a fight to his finish.
There is another question about strategy and governance. Neither candidate is talking about that. Trump does not know how to, I suspect, and Clinton does not need to (bad strategy to give your stumbling opponent anything to lash out against).
The third and final debate in Nevada is less than two weeks away. Expect Trump to attack Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, the Republicans, and the media; perhaps the only way he can scorch more earth then is to claim over and over again that the elections are “rigged” and refuse to honor the results (unless he wins).
I expect Clinton to pivot to the future, tout polls showing her with a solid lead, (taunting Trump in the process), and try to let Trump’s hailstorm of insults run off her back. Her eyes are on the prize.