Trump didn’t have a terrible night last night. For anyone who’s watched him closely for a year and a half he was simply himself. Cocky, angry, lashing out as an opponent increasingly dominated and embarrassed him. This wasn’t a bad showing. It was him. But it’s a good moment for all of those who constantly complain about Hillary being a terrible candidate, making this or that mistake, screwing this or that up, her performance last night was pitch perfect.
Yes, he did badly. But she brought it at least as much as he blew it.
Yes, she was well prepped. But it’s a bit more than that. Clinton had an important challenge in front of her. Being substantive comes easy for Clinton. That’s who she is. And she’s been in dozens of debates. But in this case she needed to be positive, buoyant and optimistic in her tone while also needling him into outbursts. That could easily come off as baiting or nasty, especially when she had to counter his confusing mix of taunts and attacks and word salad digressions. She made it seem close to effortless.
As I said last night, her answer-ending asides and bemused taunts had him getting angry within 15 minutes. By 30 minutes in, she was dominating the debate. Sure, he attacked here and there. He was louder. He interrupted more. But he was always responding to her. She had him on the ropes. She was setting the tone and the terms. And the fact that he could feel it made him angrier, more impulsive and more unable to sustain any kind of consistent message that would help him in political terms.
This is getting lost with some people. Sure he was bad. But she was at least as good as he was bad. And the quality of her performance made him much worse. As I’ve noted so many times over this ugly, antic cycle, being dominated spurs a reflexive run of outbursts from Trump, in a slashing effort to reassert dominance. He’s already out this morning lashing out at Alicia Machado for her weight, accusing the Debate Commission of sabotaging his mic, saying Lester Holt wasn’t fair.
She dominated him, the worst punishment Donald Trump can suffer. And she made it seem effortless.