In a Debate That Featured a Virtuoso Versus a Comedian, the Virtuoso Won

Last night went a long way toward getting Hillary back on the path to the White House

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on stage at Hofstra University for the first Presidential debate of the 2016 general election.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on stage at Hofstra University for the first Presidential debate of the 2016 general election. Justin Sullivan for Getty Images

Last night in Nassau County, Benny Hill and Meryl Streep showed up to audition for the part of a lifetime. Benny, who mugs and hits golf balls that land in between sexy nurse’s breasts and chases women around sofas and doesn’t know the answers, flailed and fibbed and floundered. But Meryl? Meryl embodies world leaders. Meryl is accomplished and values substance and style. Crisp, cool, confident Meryl shone and won the day and then some. Another Oscar. Reset.

For Tuesday night’s debate, the Trump campaign had managed a nimble bit of trickery. They’d set the bar for success so low that if their candidate didn’t scream racist epithets and crap the bed, he’d be deemed a success. Presidential, even – as though the qualifications for occupying the most powerful and important job in the world hinges solely on keeping your Bull Connor in check and emerging skid-mark free after 90 minutes of mental and verbal burpees onstage at Hofstra University.  Project confidence and don’t implode. Hold it together for 90 minutes.

But even when you set the bar somewhere in the sub-basement, you still have to exceed that low mark. Donald Trump didn’t even come close.

He failed abysmally and it was a sight to see. I loved every minute of watching him red-faced, cotton-mouthed, beady-eyed, motormouthed, snorting and sniffling (Donald, what is this, the bathroom at Studio 54?) through the first Presidential debate – probably the most important moment of his nascent political career. It was clear that he wasn’t just unprepared for the debate itself – pre-estimates pegged at possibly exceeding 100 million viewers, far more than any of the Republican primary debates – but completely clueless when it came to a vision or solutions. In fact, he couldn’t even properly identify the problems.

In short, Donald Trump was a mess. An embarrassing mess. Unpresidential. His family and his team must have cringed. I’m not sorry.

Looking at how each candidate approached technique, it was obvious from the opener that he doesn’t have the focus, grasp or intellectual capabilities to do much more than go a mile wide and an inch deep. He memorized two or three talking points and angrily winged the remainder. My guess is that Trump’s inner circle knows that his attention span and temperament for meaningful engagement are perilously low, so they repeatedly pushed him to mention jobs leaving, trade in general, the names of Rust Belt states where loss of manufacturing jobs has led to economic and social malaise, and how long Hillary Clinton has been in public life. The rest was a fumbled Hail Mary.

He constantly interrupted. Ad-libbed “believe me,” “beautifully, gonna be a great thing,” “huge,”  “great.” About a half hour in, his attention span gave out and he turned sour and petulant. He sullenly punched and kicked. His sniffle didn’t let up (seriously, dude, what was up with that?). He was angry. He knew he lost the room – and he not only hates losing but can only command a room in certain situations. Witness the primaries. He can own highly controlled scripted scenarios with known outcomes: witness The Apprentice.”

But a Presidential debate is an evenly divided room: not the highly partisan situations where he and the base essentially live by regurgitating each other’s crude, toxic energy like some meta political version of “The Human Centipede.” He was also facing a press corps that’s largely wised up to his constant lies and increasingly refuses to be pawns and patsys and indicate they’re committed to strong coverage and calling Trump out. More please.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, was smooth, in command, smart and steady. She was also an acrobat, luring Trump into exchanges that wouldn’t end well for him on taxes, the birther debacle, policing, race and sexism. She effortlessly led him to trapdoor after trapdoor and dead end after dead end – and then stood back and watched him hang himself. In sleights of hand, Hillary Clinton landed punches but let Donald Trump bruise himself. She managed to be strong and convincing but masterfully glided through with a cool, light touch. From the minute she walked onstage, she steered and framed the proceedings and largely had the conversation she wanted to have with the American people. It’s no secret that a lot of Democrats were nervous going into last night. Our candidate delivered beautifully and I hope this is the Hillary that shows up from now through Election Day. If it is, we will have a very good night that will blaze a trail to a transformative eight years.

By the way? I loved how prepared she was. In one of the best lines of the night she shot back, “You know what else I prepared for? Being President.” See, in Trump world, being prepared is for losers and nerds. But Hillary knows you need to be ahead of every challenge that could present itself and find a way to master it. She showed that.

Back to Benny and Meryl. Let’s put the false equivalencies to rest. There’s no match. They aren’t in the same weight class and really shouldn’t be in the same conversation. Donald Trump should exist in the smarm of reality television and fool’s gold. Let’s leave him there. Hillary Clinton belongs in the rooms where it happens, where she can exercise her smart power. Let’s make sure she gets there. Last night went a long way toward getting her back on that path. Onwards.

In a Debate That Featured a Virtuoso Versus a Comedian, the Virtuoso Won