New York, September 27, 2016:Â WhenÂ George Wallace ran a populist campaign for president in 1968, Lurleen Wallace, his wife, was asked what people liked so much about him. â€œWhen heâ€™s on â€˜Meet the Pressâ€™ they can listen to him and think, â€˜Thatâ€™s what I would say if I were up there.â€™â€ Bear this in mind as you read confident predictions that Hillary Clinton triumphed in the first presidential debate at Hofstra University. This campaign is the political equivalent of asymmetric warfare. The candidates do not meet on the same plane. Plenty of people who watched the debate will conclude that Donald Trump won.
Mr Trump started the stronger. His opponent was handed a question on the economy to begin with. She waffled and missed an opportunity to point to the recent news that all incomes are now growing strongly. Mr Trump appeared, if not presidential, then not out of place on a stage next to a former senator and secretary of state. He had an effective attack against Mrs Clinton which turned her experience back on her: you have been in public life for 30 years, so why havenâ€™t you fixed all these problems you keep talking about?
From about the 15-minute mark (of a total of 90) the debate became very strange. The moderator, Lester Holt, had an impossible job trying to prevent the two candidates from yelling at each other. Mrs Clinton launched a series of personal attacks on Mr Trump, which he couldnâ€™t resist picking up on. Mr Trump bragged, bulldozed and free-associated, as he had through the primaries. Mrs Clinton was well-prepared and verbose.
The turning point came when Mr Holt asked the Republican candidate to explain why he had claimed, for many years and ignoring the facts, that Barack Obama had not been born in America. The exchange was so bizarre that it is worth quoting at length (h/t to theWashington Post for transcribing):
HOLT: Mr. Trump, for five years, you perpetuated a false claim that the nation’s first black president was not a natural-born citizen. You questioned his legitimacy. In the last couple of weeks, you acknowledged what most Americans have accepted for years: The president was born in the United States. Can you tell us what took you so long?
TRUMP: I’ll tell you veryâ€”well, just very simple to say. Sidney Blumenthal works for the campaign and closeâ€”very close friend of Secretary Clinton. And her campaign manager, Patti Doyle, went toâ€”during the campaign, her campaign against President Obama, fought very hard. And you can go look it up, and you can check it out.
TRUMP: And if you look at CNN this past week, Patti Solis Doyle was on Wolf Blitzer saying that this happened. Blumenthal sent McClatchy, highly respected reporter at McClatchy, to Kenya to find out about it. They were pressing it very hard. She failed to get the birth certificate.
When I got involved, I didn’t fail. I got him to give the birth certificate. So I’m satisfied with it. And I’ll tell you why I’m satisfied with it.
HOLT: That was…
TRUMP: Because I want to get on to defeating ISIS, because I want to get on to creating jobs, because I want to get on to having a strong border, because I want to get on to things that are very important to me and that are very important to the country.
HOLT: I will let you respond. Itâ€™s important. But I just want to get the answer here. The birth certificate was produced in 2011. You’ve continued to tell the story and question the presidentâ€™s legitimacy in 2012, â€™13, â€™14, â€™15â€¦
HOLT: â€¦as recently as January. So the question is, what changed your mind?
TRUMP: Well, nobody was pressing it, nobody was caring much about it. I figured youâ€™d ask the question tonight, of course. But nobody was caring much about it. But I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate. And I think I did a good job.
Secretary Clinton also fought it. I mean, you knowâ€”now, everybody in mainstream is going to say, â€˜oh, thatâ€™s not true.â€™ Look, itâ€™s true. Sidney Blumenthal sent a reporterâ€”you just have to take a look at CNN, the last week, the interview with your former campaign manager. And she was involved. But just like she canâ€™t bring back jobs, she canâ€™t produce.
HOLT: Iâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™m just going to follow upâ€”and I will let you respond to that, because thereâ€™s a lot there. But weâ€™re talking about racial healing in this segment. What do you say to Americans, people of colour whoâ€¦
TRUMP: Well, it was veryâ€”I say nothing. I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing.
But let me just tell you. When you talk about healing, I think that Iâ€™ve developed very, very good relationships over the last little while with the African-American community. I think you can see that.
And I feel that they really wanted me to come to that conclusion. And I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country, but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate.
HOLT: Secretary Clinton? Â
CLINTON: Well, listen to what you just heard.
Mr Trump suddenly had all the self-assurance of a weak swimmer who has just discovered that his water-wings have a fast puncture. By the end of the debate he had spent a lot more time talking about his tax affairs (on not paying federal income tax: â€œThat makes me smartâ€); denying he had said things about the Iraq war and climate change that he had in fact said; and riffing about Rosie Oâ€™Donnell. Mrs Clinton, by contrast, had a strong finish. Her best, clearest answer came near the end, when reassuring allies:
Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual-defence treaties and we will honour them.
It is essential that Americaâ€™s word be good. And so I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and worries on the part of many leaders across the globe. Iâ€™ve talked with a number of them. But I want toâ€”on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of a majority of the American people, say that, you know, our word is good.
Those who switched on this debate thinking that Mr Trump is not qualified to be president will not have changed their minds. Those who began by thinking that Mrs Clinton is a dangerous socialist who should be locked up will have seen nothing to change their minds. But what did the 10-20% of voters who tell pollsters that they are undecided, or planning to vote for a third party, see? They saw one candidate who was well-prepared and a bit rambling, and another who was downright weird at times. 1-0 to Mrs Clinton.