Few debates in recent memory have been off the rails as the debate between Donald Trump and Bill Clinton in 1992. The bad press that engulfs any candidate who dares raise these allegations shows no signs of abating. And the specter of Bill Clinton’s reputation as a sleazy adulterer, long extinguished, looms ominously in the thoughts of many voters.
Most pundits predicted that, with many viewers unwilling to excuse Mr. Trump’s lying and his record of misconduct, the footage of the (alleged) videotape from the early 1990s would destroy his candidacy. The tapes themselves were released by The Washington Post on Friday, only hours before the debate. The publisher of The National Enquirer, David Pecker, the man at the heart of The National Enquirer’s arrangement with Mr. Trump to have it kill damaging stories about him years ago, said he’d bury any news articles about the debate “if and when they are published.” “In the end, our mantra,” Mr. Pecker said, “has always been, we will kill them before they kill us.”
Since then, some familiar faces have disappeared from the stage. George W. Bush’s all-but-shuttered presidential library program, for instance, would seem an unlikely place for tonight’s debate between Mr. Bush and his presumed 2016 opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. And some of Mr. Trump’s fellow candidates have also withdrawn their support for him.
One big distinction from this debate: Mr. Trump entered as a first-tier candidate and ended as the subject of an investigation by the Republican National Committee about whether he’d taken improper payments during his bid for the nomination. Nobody ever accused Mr. Trump of being a virtuous politician. But he knew how to apply what he called “the temperament test” and hold down his base.
But the Republican National Committee investigation into his campaign funding has left him exposed in a way that no other big winner of the primaries has been. Hence his schadenfreude-fueled attacks on the Republican politicians he’d previously praised as he crawled back toward the GOP convention, somewhat wincing at the notion that all the Republican politicians he respected had, in all candor, turned on him. The RNC probe, which also involved two of his own former businesses, found that the business donors that were big campaign donors might not have given him anything close to the sums suggested in The Washington Post’s leaked tapes.
But those tapes also laid bare Mr. Trump’s record of fiscal hypocrisy, from his record of not paying taxes to his support for increasing military spending — a position Mr. Trump himself had previously denied. Put another way, Mr. Trump’s record would have disqualified some other candidates in this election. But he has a mystique about him that makes him unassailable.
The debates now have a life of their own, much like baseball’s annual All-Star game, its rebirth a season before each preceding one. This one is different from many others, though. Mr. Trump’s position is marginally worse today than it was in 1992. In 1992, though, the country did not face a comparable economic crisis that many saw as a wake-up call for remedial action. It’s hard to imagine the economy being so bad now that the country suddenly wakes up to a second and third crackup in a generation. This crisis, though, transcends politics. It is perhaps the greatest crisis in modern American history, the result of a Faustian bargain with three-century old racial politics and decades of grandstanding politicians and journalists. The hard economic trends are affecting almost everyone, and the pernicious racial politics are also helping to pull down almost everyone’s standard of living.
For some in the electorate, Mr. Trump’s inability to clean up his past is essentially an affront to American morality and one that, if nothing else, serves as a reminder that these values may have been noble in their time but do not define the new era, which they were meant to depict.
If it’s good for Republicans to debate Mr. Trump, then it’s good for voters to hear him, once again, made to look ridiculous in front of the rest of us. And if such debates eventually stop serving a purpose in evaluating presidential candidates, the benefits will be duly noticed by voters.