[updated Wed., 10 am]
The real Donald Trump showed up for the first presidential debate Monday night: arrogant and bombastic at the beginning; then unable to keep from taking the bait in Clinton's attacks and hitting back in a way that exposed his lack of preparation, his thin-skinned vulnerabilities, and his lack of substance or understanding.
She brought out his misogynistic attacks on a beauty pageant winner who gained weight; she exposed his history of racial discrimination in housing, questioned his boasts about his business prowess, and challenged his refusal to release his tax returns -- listing the possible things he's trying to hide, including debt to foreign sources that might be conflicts of interest for a president. And there was so much more, too.
Her strategy was perfectly designed to draw him into his own trap: He is incapable of letting an attack go unreturned. So she kept him counter-attacking and off balance, while she maintained her composed demeanor.
Afterward, his spin team gamely tried to save something from the ashes. And he did have a few good moments, especially when he attacked her on trade policy. He scored a few points, with his supporters anyway. When she said, repeatedly, things like: "we have to do better" or "work harder" to change things, he responded by pointing out that "you've been there for 30 years, so why didn't you make things better?" Of course, that also reveals that he has no understanding of how hard it is to make these changes, especially when the party he's representing has opposed everything she and Obama have tried to do.
But that's about it for positives for Trump. He was unprepared and betrayed again and again how little he knows about the government, our international agreements, or domestic policy. Even trade deals -- which should be his forte -- he has no concrete proposals for how he would improve them.
The biggest failing of all in his performance, however, was his obvious lack of stamina for such a lengthy, demanding test. He seemed strongest and on his toes in the first 10 minutes, and it went down from there. By midway, he was beginning to squirm and looked very uneasy, loudly snuffling and drinking water again and again; and his answers became less and less coherent and on message. By the end, he was in advanced meltdown mode.
Clinton was calm and collected throughout; he was the opposite. And then he ludicrously claimed, near the end when he was obviously coming unglued, that "My strongest asset by far is my temperament."
In addition, his main strategy was to interrupt Clinton and to talk over the moderator. By one group's count, he interrupted her over 50 times. Liberal pundit Howard Fineman called it "the worst debate performance in modern times." As a post-debate panelist on MSNBC, even Republican strategist Steve Schmidt thought Trump's performance was a disaster.
Daily Kos commenter Amanda McKay summed it up: "Pundits and instant reaction polls agree: Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump last night. [She] exposed Donald Trump as a racist, reactionary gasbag in front of what may be the largest debate audience in history. It was a stunning presentation of calm, intelligence, and wit in the face of insults and insanity."
Thomas Edsall in the New York Times quoted Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, saying that Trump “was angry, rambling, fidgety and often simply incoherent. His bar was to look even modestly like a president, in carriage and temperament, plus a very, very low bar on fundamental knowledge. He failed on them all.” Note: The AEI is a very conservative think tank.
Instant polls on who people thought won: CNN/ORC poll: 62% Clinton to 27% Trump. PPP poll: 51% to 40%. Wordsmith guru Frank Luntz, who advises Republicans how to use loaded words to sway voters, held a focus group. Of his group, 16 picked Clinton as the winner, 6 said Trump won. Those are the only polls thus far that mean anything. Ignore those "polls" Trump is touting that show him winning. They either do not exist (CBS sent out a tweet saying it did not poll, after Trump claimed to have won it). The others are online surveys with no controls; you can vote as many times as you want, from wherever you are. Even Russian hackers could be rigging them to register multiple votes.
Yes, but did the debate change votes? Trump's loyal core of supporters will stick with him no matter what he does or says, except for a few on the fringes perhaps that might peel off. But it's extremely unlikely that he gained any votes. Clinton will probably gain a few percentage points in polls from some independents and those who thought they didn't like her but had never before really seen her competence and her steady calm in the face of the Trump barrage.
Clinton seemed presidential. Trump did not. Her best line of the night (among many, really) was this. Trump had tried to paint her as shirking the campaign trail over the past few days while she holed up to prepare for the debate. Her reply: “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that's a good thing."