But that promising beginning did not last. Clinton continued to just get better. Writer Andrew Sullivan, live-blogging about the debate, was initially somewhat critical of her. By 10:00 pm he was describing Clinton as "calm, composed, and powerful." By the end, he referred to a bit of opposition research she dropped on Trump as "stunning," and said: "She has been superb tonight – and got better as she continued."
In contrast, Trump started at his highest point and slid, dived, and eventually fell to his political death when he refused to say that he would honor the election results and concede if he lost. "I'll look into it at the time." It wasn't just a misstatement. Chris Wallace tried to help him walk it back, but Trump was adamant:
Wallace: “Sir, there is a tradition in this country . . . that no matter how hard fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. . . and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?
”Trump: "What I’m saying is, I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”There was an audible gasp from the audience. Everyone knew that this would be the headline from this debate. Within an hour, online versions of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, plus Reuter's, the Associated Press, and NPR were all leading with this news flash.
Almost forgotten were Trump's gratuitous insults -- "We've got some bad hombres here." Interrupting his opponent time and again with "Wrong." "Wrong." "Wrong." Saying his accusers of sexual assault were all lying, probably put up to it by Clinton. His doubling down on his praise for Russia and Putin, and then adding Assad to his list of strong leaders he prefers to President Obama.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the cognitive dissonance involved in following Trump was this juxtaposition: "Nobody respects women more than I do." Moments later, he interrupted the woman on stage with him to call her: "What a nasty woman."
While Clinton scored high points as a debater, she left some people dissatisfied with her answers to real questions that have hung over her campaign: her destroyed emails, the FBI investigation into use of private email server, revelations from the hacked emails of her campaign staff, and the possibility of conflict of interest involving big donors to the Clinton Foundation while she was Secretary of State.
Wallace raised some of those questions, and she skillfully dispatched with those she didn't want to talk about and used them to bring up other issues that gave her an advantage. On one issue, the Clinton Foundation, Wallace tried to push Clinton further; but Trump interrupted to pile on his criticism, which turned the focus to the Trump Foundation. It was so smoothly done that you hardly noticed that she avoided going very deeply into her own thorny issue. Good debate skills; good political tactic; not so satisfying for those who are worried about those issues.
Clinton also had polished her skill in making her policy positions more concise and easier to understand. Sam Stein of the Huffington Post wrote that her answer on abortion policy "was the most eloquent defense of reproductive freedom ever delivered on a debate stage."
She was even more adroit than before in needling Trump, getting him to take the bait, and then sliding in the shiv with a well-placed bit of opposition research data (his full page New York Times ad critical of Ronald Reagen; his complaint that the Emmy's were rigged when he didn't get one for "The Apprentice.")
But far more important than debate skills was the overall impression. Hillary Clinton had the grativas, the knowledge, the composure, and the wisdom to be president. Donald Trump would get an F on each of those qualities.
Next in importance to his refusal to commit to accepting our electoral transfer of power, in itself, was the likelihood that he doesn't even understand why everyone else thinks that is so significant. As he has defensively said, "Al Gore did it." Yes, Al Gore contested the vote count in one state that would have tipped the election, and where his opponent had a margin of only 637 votes, with evidence of voting irregularities. He called for a recount. But when it got to the end of the appeal line, the Supreme Court, Gore did not hesitate to accept the decision and conceded the election. Trump does not understand the difference between contesting a razor thin vote tally in one state that would flip the result -- and refusing, even before the election, to ascribe to the foundational policy of democracy that the will of the people decides who will be their leader and their representatives.
Close behind these grave concerns is the admiration he continues to express for dictatorial leaders of adversary nations. Despite all the evidence that had led 17 different governmental and private internet security experts to conclude that the Russian government at the highest level is behind the hacking of Democratic emails, for the purpose of influencing our election toward Donald Trump -- despite that expertise speaking with one voice, Trump still says "we don't know that." This is the man who bragged that "I know more than the generals about ISIS."
Going into the debate, Clinton just needed not to make any big mistakes. Trump needed a character transplant, some evidence of real compassion and humility, a sudden stock of policy knowledge, evidence of the ability to think about complex issues regarding those policies, and the calm judgment to be the commander in the situation room.
Clinton not only made no mistakes, she added immeasurably to her stature. Trump failed to display even one of those listed attributes; instead he made one of the most egregious errors in modern political history.
At the end of the evening debate about the debate, CNN reported the results of its live poll of who people thought won the debate: Clinton 52%, Trump 39%. You.gov poll: Clinton 49%, Trump 39%. That only adds some data to what we already knew.
It's over, folks. Hillary Clinton will be the 45th president of these United States -- and the first woman to occupy the Oval Office. Hail to the Chief.