At the beginning of Sunday's critical presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump looked listless and sick. He seemed deflated while Hillary Clinton spent minutes berating his character at the invitation of the moderators, who brought up the lascivious tape of Trump describing the way he goes after women. Later in the debate, Trump made a bit of history, promising to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton's email scandal. Soon enough, he just cut to the chase and said she would be in jail if he was president. Several times Trump seemed to be choking on his own word salad.
And yet, it was a great night for Donald Trump.
Okay, maybe not great. But surely as great as could possibly be expected. The grotesque tape scandal that dominated the weekend had caused dozens of Republicans to disown his candidacy or even call on him to drop out. His running mate was running away, canceling his events representing the campaign this weekend, and leaking to the press how disconsolate he was. Suddenly it seemed there was a non-zero chance that a full-scale revolt by the GOP would erupt, possibly forcing Trump off the ticket. These were choppy, uncharted waters, and Trump's candidacy was setting forth through them in a storm.
But for one night, at least, Trump calmed the waters.
Trump was not like the Apostles, who woke up the Lord and pleaded with him to save them from drowning in troubled waters. (In fact, Republicans should probably avoid calling on the Lord for now.) No, instead Trump found the best way to help the Republican base forget the tapes in which he described his willingness to sexually assault women in private: Rhetorically assault Hillary Clinton in public.
Trump brought up every Clinton scandal he could. And Republicans ate it up. By the end of the debate, the formally disconsolate Pence was tweeting his fat congrats on a big win. (Of course, undecided voters, Democrats, and other people of goodwill may not be so easily satisfied.)
How did Trump do it? In the Trumpian way. Objectively, Trump is awful at telling stories about his opponents. He often doesn't explain an attack. He said ObamaCare was a fraud, and mentioned the name Jonathan Gruber, before reiterating his line that ObamaCare was a fraud. If you're a cable news junkie like Trump, you might understand his reference to Gruber, an economics professor who once blabbed that the White House knew it was selling people a false line on how they could "keep their insurance" if they liked it. Trump did this over and over again, referring to the players in the story, rather than telling the story. Instead of explaining how Clinton's State Department ignored requests from Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya, even though Clinton responded to emails from her hatchet-man and flunky, Sidney Blumenthal, Trump just referred to all the elements of that story in an accusatory tone.
And yet, even if he can't explain these stories coherently, he effectively demonstrated his attitude toward them: disgust and impatience. Trump seemed to remember that he was the anti-establishment candidate. And in this debate, he tied Clinton to that establishment's failures over and over again. When moderators brought up Syria, he blamed the White House and Clinton for the humanitarian disaster, then tied her to the deplorable outcome of her favored Libya intervention and Iraq. When Clinton tried to bring up his taxes, he wasn't churlish and petulant as he was in the first debate. Instead he essentially admitted the facts about his massive write-offs, and then said that they were legal. And further, that it was legal because Clinton's donors want these loopholes to be legal. This is Trump at his most effective: I was playing by the rotten rules that crooked people like Hillary Clinton wrote. I will fix them for good.
But to say that it was a good night for Trump is not to say that it will halt his post-scandal fall in the polls. Or turn his campaign around. In fact, there may yet be more defections coming.
Trump began the night with zero expectations. The entire political class had tuned in to see if he would simply melt into the floor, or explode in unrestrained fury and poor taste. Instead, he did a serviceable version of his campaign's greatest hits. Hillary is crooked. ObamaCare is a fraud. Our foreign policy is a disaster. I can fix the dirty laws that benefited me.
It won't save him in November. But it may save him for the next 24 hours.