Donald Trump won tonight’s debate. He didn’t implode, he didn’t blither, he didn’t continually interrupt Hillary Clinton and he didn’t even sniff much. And, frankly, he had the best retorts and one-liners. Clinton was on her heels much of the night, and several times, she had to reset by resorting to tired, hollow platitudes — which only drove home the point that she lacks authenticity and appears to be a typical politician who is therefore dishonest. That said, Clinton was an able, informed politician, but Trump — for the first time — appeared to be a worthy opponent.
The fact is this is a change election, and Clinton is not the change candidate. People don’t really want to vote for her, and tonight, she didn’t give them much of a reason to do so. And perhaps Trump put voters more at ease with Trump. Up until this debate, Trump has helped Clinton out by running a campaign that has been a complete misfire — taking the bait, chasing rabbits, insulting women, wallowing in conspiracies and almost consciously avoiding things voters care about. But during this debate, he held his tongue and held his temper. Trump isn’t particularly light on his feet, but he was confident and competent talking about the economy. It’s a wonder he hasn’t talked about the economy during more of the campaign. Anyway, he even showed a much better understanding of geopolitics than I would have thought. He sounded like a Republican on most issues. For Trump, it’s too bad there aren’t more debates.
Clinton, on the other hand, was overprepared and over-rehearsed. As a result, she missed the bull’s eye during much of the night. Clinton’s forced smiles during some of Trump’s most effective lines, while probably the best she could do, did not fit the moment.
The totality of the campaign isn’t about this debate. There’s a lot of water under the bridge. Trump’s performance tonight can’t fully rehabilitate him, but it’s clear that the media — including me — expected a much worse performance. In fact, the post-debate analysts seem as rattled as Clinton. The press is going to panic over the fact that Trump helped himself, as shown by the immediate obsessing over Trump’s “non-commitment” to accepting the election results in November. But for voters watching the debate, that wasn’t really much of a focal point. The media wants to bore into it, but in doing so, reporters and commentators are ignoring many of the issues that were actually discussed in a rational fashion thanks to the steady hand of moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.
In politics, good gets better and bad gets worse. Given Trump’s performance, I expect to see some stories about panic in the Clinton universe by the time the Sunday shows roll around. Before tonight’s debate, the conventional wisdom was that Trump was collapsing — and when conventional wisdom is set this far ahead of election day, the conventional wisdom is often wrong. So, was tonight a game changer? Probably not. But it might shift momentum and keep the race interesting.