Thoughts on an unpleasant evening

Well, that was fun — watching two candidates I can’t stand argue for 90-plus minutes and seeing the candidate I dislike more (Hillary Clinton) get the better of it.

Why do I think Clinton got the better of it? First, I thought she was more composed. Second, I thought she was on the attack for much of the debate and was able (with the help of the moderator) frequently to put Trump on the defensive.

Third, I thought that Trump often wasn’t effective when on the defensive. His defense of his “birtherism” was effective when he laid the origins of it on Clinton, much less so when he praised himself several times for getting Obama to produce the birth certificate, and quite ineffective when he couldn’t explain why he didn’t back off once the certificate was produced.

Trump did even worse when he tried to explain why he won’t produce his tax returns. I doubt that a good answer is available, but surely Trump’s rambling defense was less than optimal. Better to give a short answer — e.g., it’s not a good idea to release tax returns when being audited — and move on.

So too with the issue of Trump’s support, pre-invasion, of the Iraq war. Instead of droning on and “swearing in” Sean Hannity as his witness, why not just say that I expressed my opposition on several occasions, while Hillary, with access to all the intelligence reports, voted for the war.

This was one of several occasions when Trump failed to zing Clinton. Here’a another. The question of electronic espionage presented a great opportunity for Trump to hammer Clinton on her use of a private server to receive and transmit information about our national security. Trump didn’t do it.

Trump had good moments, to be sure. He was effective, I thought, on “law and order,” winning that part of the debate in my estimation. In my view, he also won on ISIS (where I generally agree with him) and trade (where I generally don’t). And he did a good job of hammering home the fact that Clinton has been a central figure in the political class that has failed to come to grips with many of our most serious problems.

Where he lost was mainly on personal stuff — his tax returns, birtherism, sexist comments, and stiffing his creditors. The debate, thus took an unexpected turn — Trump did pretty well on the issues but lost when it came to personal attacks. Fortunately for him, the first 30 minutes — presumably the most watched part of the debate — were focused on issues. The personal stuff came later.

How badly did Trump lose that part of the debate? I think he avoided coming off as an ogre, except to people already convinced he is. If the bar is that low, he cleared it. His temperament, for which he vigorously vouched, didn’t seem awful, but Clinton’s seemed better.

I think Trump also cleared a low bar on showing himself knowledgeable enough to be president. Not because his answers were good on substance, but because he was never stumped, committed no terrible gaffe, and was able to throw around facts and figures.

But Hillary Clinton also cleared a few bars. She did not seem sickly or lacking in stamina (and she had a very good response to Trump’s claim that she does lack it). She certainly did not seem intimidated by Trump or less formidable than the tycoon — at least not to me. If anything, by putting Trump on the defensive (with the moderator’s help), she arguably was the more formidable of the two candidates, and without resorting to bluster.

But what did the public make of the debate? That’s the only important question, one that will be answered in the next few days.