Clin­ton de­liv­ers a beat-down

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

— Don­ald Trump just got roughed up, and badly, by a girl. On Mon­day night, at the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate, Hil­lary Clin­ton made her op­po­nent look ig­no­rant, un­pre­pared, ego­tis­ti­cal, child­ish, petu­lant, im­pa­tient and at times to­tally in­co­her­ent.

How bad did it get? At one point, as Trump was grop­ing blindly across the mine­fields of for­eign pol­icy, los­ing a foot here and a leg there, he an­nounced, apro­pos of noth­ing, that “I think my strong­est as­set, maybe by far, is my tem­per­a­ment.” Clin­ton smiled sweetly and ex­claimed, “Whew, OK!” The au­di­ence at Hof­s­tra Univer­sity, sternly in­structed to re­main silent through­out the de­bate, ig­nored the rules and burst into laugh­ter.

They were laugh­ing at you, Don­ald, not with you.

Clin­ton then pa­tiently ex­plained the im­por­tance of hon­or­ing in­ter­na­tional agree­ments, such as the NATO treaty, to a man who seemed not to grasp the con­cept of the na­tion’s word be­ing its bond. One hopes her re­as­sur­ances were enough to coax al­lies in Ber­lin, Tokyo, Seoul and other cap­i­tals down from the ceil­ing.

The 90-minute en­counter, mod­er­ated by NBC’s Lester Holt, was less a de­bate than a beat-down. Clin­ton ob­vi­ously had put in many hours of prepa­ra­tion. Trump ap­par­ently de­cided to wing it — and while this ap­proach worked well dur­ing the Repub­li­can pri­maries, when no­body got much time to speak and pithy one-lin­ers could win the day, it bombed in a one-on-one clash where there was no place to hide.

Trump’s big­gest vul­ner­a­bil­ity is that he so rarely knows what he’s talk­ing about. Min­utes be­fore his hi­lar­i­ous tem­per­a­ment dec­la­ra­tion, he had been boast­ing that his crit­i­cism of NATO a few months ago caused the al­liance to be­gin fo­cus­ing on ter­ror­ism. “I think we have to get NATO to go into the Mid­dle East with us, in ad­di­tion to sur­round­ing na­tions,” he said.

Clin­ton coolly re­minded him — “in­formed him” would prob­a­bly be more ac­cu­rate — of some per­ti­nent facts. “You know, NATO as a mil­i­tary al­liance has some­thing called Ar­ti­cle 5, and ba­si­cally it says this: An at­tack on one is an at­tack on all,” she said. “And you know the only time it’s ever been in­voked? Af­ter 9/11, when the 28 na­tions of NATO said that they would go to Afghanistan with us to fight ter­ror­ism, some­thing that they still are do­ing by our side.”

That’s pretty much the way the evening went, es­pe­cially to­ward the end. Trump vis­i­bly ran out of gas, poor thing. His an­swers be­came in­creas­ingly scat­tered and el­lip­ti­cal. Pressed to de­fend his con­tention (long since dis­proved) that he was against the Iraq War, he com­plained re­peat­edly that “every­body re­fuses to call Sean Han­nity.” Even Han­nity, the Fox News host, must have been perplexed.

This was af­ter he charged that Clin­ton “doesn’t have the stamina” to be pres­i­dent. But she looked fresh as a daisy through­out, while Trump wilted be­fore our eyes.

One of Trump’s worst mo­ments, at least to my eyes and ears, came when Clin­ton al­leged that he paid no fed­eral in­come taxes at all in at least some re­cent years. Trump of­fered no protest, in­stead in­ter­ject­ing, “That makes me smart.” Se­ri­ously? No one wants to pay more in taxes than re­quired, but the idea of a self-pro­claimed bil­lion­aire get­ting a free pass will be hard for many vot­ers to swal­low.

Through­out the de­bate, the split-screen showed Trump mug­ging, fid­get­ing, shrug­ging, gri­mac­ing, of­fer­ing an ar­ray of ex­ag­ger­ated smiles and frowns. He in­ter­rupted Clin­ton fre­quently, but she didn’t com­plain. She may have cal­cu­lated that it ben­e­fited her cause for Trump to have the floor.

Clin­ton also may have tried to bait Trump by sug­gest­ing he only suc­ceeded in busi­ness be­cause of his fa­ther’s help — and might not be as wealthy as he claims. If so, the tac­tic worked. Trump was un­able to let any­thing pass. For rea­sons I can’t be­gin to un­der­stand, he even re­newed his long-run­ning feud with co­me­dian Rosie O’Don­nell.

I am un­der no il­lu­sion that Trump’s abysmal per­for­mance will cause his most ded­i­cated sup­port­ers to have sec­ond thoughts. They heard his cen­tral ar­gu­ment, which is that “politi­cians like Sec­re­tary Clin­ton” have failed — and it’s time to try some­thing new.

But while the race has tight­ened to the point where Trump could ac­tu­ally win, Mon­day night vividly demon­strated why he should not — why he must not. Whether you like Clin­ton or not, it’s ob­vi­ous that she can do the job. The de­bate had to make un­de­cided vot­ers ques­tion whether Trump even has a clue.

Eu­gene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

NEW YORK

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