For an hour and a half Monday night, Donald Trump sniffled and bickered his way through a highly contentious debate. With all the talk of health problems, perhaps it’s ironic that Trump was the one who seemed a bit under the weather. And heaven knows we obsess too much over the superficial.
But if Al Gore’s audible sighing was an issue, and Dr. Ben Carson’s coughing fit was a distraction, then Trump’s performance may go down as the sniff heard ‘round the world.
Maybe he lacks stamina. He got off to a good enough start. But Clinton was consistently cheery and spunky, and frequently on the attack. There were no coughing fits or fainting spells; just sharp elbows. And, more importantly, when Trump said that Clinton lacked stamina, it was juxtaposed by a split screen of her smiling and looking sharp as a tack.
If her goal was to get under Trump’s skin — you know, sniff out his weakness, and bait him into losing his temper — it worked. She got under that thin skin by talking about his inherited wealth and questionable status as a billionaire. What is more, Trump is not a conventional politician, and he did not heed the conventional warnings about the dangers of a male candidate attacking a female one.
We won’t know until some polling comes out whether Trump’s unchivalrous interruptions and attacks will backfire the way that Rick Lazio’s now infamous invasion of Clinton’s personal space did, but Trump will test the theory that male candidates need to attack with caution.
Passing the competence test
Trump passed the competence test, but he did nothing to resolve concerns about his temperament. What is more, while his combative performance is likely to please his current base, if one assumes a Trump victory requires increasing his support among Republican women (Trump is getting only about 72 percent of them, but Mitt Romney garnered 93 percent of the Republican women's vote), it’s hard to see where tonight’s performance strategically accomplished that objective.
As the night wore on, Clinton got stronger, and Trump seemed to get more thin-skinned and braggadocious. The turning point where Trump stumbled seemed to be the “birther” question.
I guess you never know what will be remembered in a debate. Did anyone expect that “There you go again” would be cited four decades later?
So much of the handwringing heading into this debate had to do with the possibility that a moderator might “fact-check” the candidates. But except for pointing out Trump’s erroneous claim that he always opposed the Iraq war, moderator Lester Holt was barely noticeable.
Early on, there were times when it seemed that he had ceded control, not that this was a bad thing. Both candidates held their own, and a good referee doesn’t make himself part of the story. The crowd also broke the rules a few times by applauding, but it seemed more uncontrollable than planned.
In the end, I don’t think it mattered much at all.
What is more, anyone worried that Trump could not fill the requisite time allowed to respond to questions, or that his lack of expertise in policy areas would be obvious, was wrong. Always loquacious, Trump had no trouble filling the time. And although his lack of policy fluency is no secret, his folksy answers — especially early on — were a refreshing change from the normal way politicians usually speak.
And the winner is...
Still, by my score, Hillary Clinton easily won this debate. This is especially impressive, since coming into the debate, she had the harder task.
For one thing, it was hard to predict which Donald Trump was going to show up. She had to prepare several contingency plans. Additionally, expectations regarding Trump’s performance were low, meaning that it should have been easier for him to exceed them. I guess those intense debate prep sessions paid off for her. On strategy and style, she was superior. This is not to say that we should expect Trump’s polling to suddenly collapse. More likely, this will stall the momentum he has been gaining for the last several weeks.
At the end of the night, both these candidates have serious flaws. Whether it was Trump’s excuses about not releasing his taxes, or Clinton’s excuses about her personal e-mail account, neither one of the candidates passed America’s sniff test.
But we’re past the stage of bargaining, and onto acceptance. Somebody has to win, and tonight, it was Clinton.
Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.