In Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, we have two of the oldest people to ever run for the presidency. And people of a certain age do tend to become caricatures of themselves. In this debate Trump was too much of a blowhard. And Hillary Clinton was too nerdy.
In the last hour especially, the former reality TV star would ramble in his Trumpian way: asides within asides, wrapped in a parenthetical, and punctuated by a non sequitur. At one point he congratulated himself on his restraint for not saying something nasty he could have said about the Clintons. (Pssst: It's about Bill Clinton's tomcatting). At another, he criticized Clinton for her lack of stamina, even though his body language and baggy diction indicated that it was he who was flagging. And worst of all, he rambled through a response on racial issues by half-heartedly bragging about owning a golf club that minorities can join.
The debate moderator Lester Holt brought up Trump's long promotion of conspiracy theories about President Obama's birthplace. Instead of moving on after an economical dismissal, Trump tried to brag about his role in forcing the president to produce a birth certificate. It was like the reverse of a job applicant's interview question; Trump tried to brag that his worst fault was actually one of his best qualities. Every second spent on this topic was bad for Trump.
Clinton on the other hand seemed to play the class nerd. As Trump tried to pin her down early, Clinton repeatedly asked people to visit her website for instant fact-checking of Trump. When Trump said other false things, she called on the fact-checkers again. It was repulsively passive. Why call upon the flunkies back home at spin central? If Trump is wrong, correct him. If he's lying, call him out. Like a teacher pleaser running for class president, Clinton's preparation made her condescend to her intended audience. "I call it 'Trumped-up trickle-down.'" She repeated this too-cute formulation twice. Whoever thought she should train her fire at a blithering demagogue's reheated tax plan rather than his fitness and character should be demoted.
In the first half hour, Trump did have a very solid debate in which he was both aggressive and controlled. You can almost reconstruct some of Team Trump's debate prep from the 15 minutes or so when he seemed sharp and even prosecutorial. He criticized Clinton's one-time support of the Trans Pacific Partnership, and said she would revert back to supporting it as president. Clinton tried to explain her flip on the TPP as merely waiting to see the final details, which she ultimately rejected. Trump immediately interjected, "Is it President Obama's fault?" Thrust, parry, strike. It was a nice trap, and Trump nearly pushed Clinton into it.
But ultimately Clinton won the debate — though not as decisively as many commentators fear or hope. She peppered the debate with critiques of Trump's history. She narrated his life story in an unflattering way, raised multiple theories for why Trump would not release his tax returns, and even criticized him for stiffing the little guy. At each time, Trump ineffectively tried to accept the charge, but on his terms. The loan from his father was small. The federal government would just waste his money if he paid taxes, and the little guy did shoddy work.
Of course it will take a few days for the polling to show any movement. In the meantime Trump's camp is likely going to try to attack the moderator, Lester Holt. And yes, the Clinton team absolutely worked the refs in the two weeks leading up to the debate. Trump got several questions about his scandals; Clinton got fewer about hers. But the moderation would have been seen as less lopsided if Trump had used the opportunities presented to him. A section of the debate on cybersecurity should have been a gimme for Trump. Instead he let Clinton say that he was too admiring of Putin. Trump easily could have retorted that Hillary's unsecured server meant that Putin didn't have to butter her up because the Kremlin already got the goods on her. He whiffed.
If Trump wants to make a comeback he needs to study the first 30 minutes of last night's debate and see how effective he could be by controlling his aggression while prosecuting Hillary Clinton's record. This is exactly what Mitt Romney did for his most successful debate.
But don't count on Trump to turn that 30 minute preview into a great sequel. It's not a coincidence that Trump's best section was on the trade issue. It's the only political issue on which he's had a consistent set of opinions for a quarter century. How much could he possibly cram between now and the second Sunday of October?