There was a moment when I thought he might just pull it off – that his GOP primary debate personae would actually rattle Hillary, all her debate prep would fly out the window, and she’d be on the defensive all night. She would learn what the other GOP contenders learned. It’s extraordinarily difficult to debate an aggressive, stream-of-consciousness celebrity when facts don’t matter, and no insult or insinuation is too far.
But Hillary apparently did her homework, and if there’s one thing we learned during the primary, it’s that Trump hates it when debaters attack his wealth or his business. So she went there. She smacked his wealth and business success, and he just couldn’t help himself. For several agonizing minutes, he threw a wall of words at viewers while she just watched — with a satisfied, frozen smile. By the end of the debate he was all over the place — on the defensive on multiple fronts. Why didn’t he have a better answer ready for the birther nonsense? Has he still not done any homework on foreign policy? I felt like I was watching the political Titanic hit the iceberg, back up, and hit it again. Just for fun.
After the first 20 minutes, it may have been the most lopsided debate I’ve ever seen — and not because Clinton was particularly effective. She could bait him effectively, but most of her canned lines fell flat. Her zinger about preparing for the debate and preparing for president sounded self-righteous. But you don’t need to be good when your opponent is bad.
However — and this is a very, very big however — he stumbled badly in multiple primary debates and yet still powered through. He may power through again. As Ramesh notes below, he did hit a number of his themes (though curiously barely attacked Clinton on her e-mails and Benghazi — and his attacks on the Iran deal were weak, at best), and he was somewhat effective early. His base isn’t deserting him, and he’s already proved he can weather multiple horrific news cycles. So . . . long story short? It’s still 2016. There are still twists and turns left in the race. But tonight Trump lost, and it wasn’t that close.