Donald Trump’s spin queen recently touted her boss as “the Babe Ruth of debaters.” Apparently she didn’t know that Babe Ruth also struck out 1,330 times.
That was the Babe who showed up on the debate stage last night. Actually, it was the twilight Babe of 1935, lumbering to the plate for the Boston Braves, swinging for the fences and missing so badly that he’d wind up on his knees in the dirt, twisted like a pretzel.
And if you don’t like baseball analogies, here’s veteran Republican strategist John Weaver’s pithy spot-on take on the first presidential debate: “Two thoughts. (1) She kicked his ass and (2) he helped her.”
I have no idea how or whether that 90-minute Trump dumpster fire will move the polls. Trumpkins undoubtedly loved his act; for all I know, undecideds didn’t warm to Hillary Clinton’s crisp and calm performance (although the undecideds in last night’s focus groups tilted toward her); and for all I know, the millennials who are flirting with Gary Johnson or Jill Stein were too busy taking Instagram pix of their lattes to pay attention at all.
But as someone who has watched or chronicled every presidential debate since 1976, I can confidently say that I’d never seen a candidate performance as pathetic as what I witnessed last night. I had assumed that Trump would at least offer us a rough facsimilie of a qualified candidate, and forego the raving and ranting and lying that animate his demagogic rallies. Nope! He brought the only game he knows, and he left that stage with footprints from Hillary’s pumps tattooing his rump.
I need not replay all the abject moments that confirmed his unfitness for high or low office; those clips will be on cable for days to come. It suffices just to hit a few highlights, starting with Clinton’s evisceration of his sole alleged qualification: his track record as a businessman and his purported bond with the average working stiff. Because if the average working stiff who faithfully pays federal taxes has not been following the news, it was arguably a revelatory moment to learn that Trump has never paid his federal taxes – and he prides himself on that.
CLINTON (on Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns): Maybe he doesn’t want the American people to know, all of you watching tonight, that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.
TRUMP: That makes me smart.
There it was, strike one: A presidential nominee confirming on camera that he never pays his taxes – and actually congratulating himself for shifting the tax burden to the average Joe. And then, after Trump went on a long defensive jag about how great his company is (any time you’re stuck on defense, you’re losing), the rest of his fraudulent populism was laid bare.
CLINTON: If your main claim to be president of the United States is your business, then I think we should talk about that….I have met a lot of the people who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald. I’ve met dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, marble installers, drapery installers, like my dad was, who you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do. We have an architect in the audience who designed one of your clubhouses at one of your golf courses. It’s a beautiful facility. It immediately was put to use. And you wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you to do….Do the thousands of people that you have stiffed over the course of your business not deserve some kind of apology from someone who has taken their labor, taken the goods that they produced, and then refused to pay them?
Perhaps the crucial Rustbelt voters who tuned in won’t care that Trump is a deadbeat; perhaps they think it’s awesome that he gets away with stuff. Or perhaps many of them were suitably repulsed, particularly when Trump responded to Clinton’s articulated indictment with lame sputterings: “Look, it’s all words, it’s all soundbites….When Secretary Clinton talks about people that didn’t get paid, first of all they did get paid a lot but taken advantage of the laws of the nation.”
There it was, strike two: Exposed as a deadbeat who rips off working people, he had no defense. And that incoherent phrasing – “but taken advantage of the laws of the nation” – was vintage Sarah Palin.
I could flag all kinds of stuff. I loved his extended rant about how he really opposed the Iraq war before it began (this lie has been thoroughly documented), because hey, he’d had private conversations about that with Sean Hannity and why didn’t anybody call Sean Hannity, and what he supposedly said in private to Sean Hannity trumped the “mainstream media nonsense,” and he’s fuming and snorting and sniffing…and then, in the midst of this outburst of bad temperament, he suddenly declared (to uproarious laughter, at least in blue households):
I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know? I have a much better – she spent — let me tell you – she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an advertising – you know, they get Madison Avenue into a room, they put names – oh, temperament, let’s go after – I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament, I have a winning temperament –
And in the chamber of the Great and Powerful Oz, the curtain was slid aside to reveal a little man feverishly yanking levers.
But his proud riff about birtherism was truly the piece de resistance. First he insisted that the racist crusade against Barack Obama was Clinton’s fault, that she ‘s the one who started it: “You just have to take a look at CNN, the last week, the interview with your former campaign manager (Patti Doyle) – and she was involved.” That was yet another lie. On CNN, Doyle said precisely the opposite.
Then he switched tactics and decided to pat himself on the back: “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….Nobody was pressing it, 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.”
Strike three: A major nominee confirmed on camera that he was proud of his racist lying crusade about America’s first black president. But hey, he really does like black people, they’re wonderful people – because down in Palm Beach, Florida (“a tough community”), he opened a club “and really got great credit for it. No discrimination against African- Americans….And I have been given great credit for what I did.”
Let’s see what else…Near the end, when Clinton skewered him for inviting Russia to cyberhack Americans, he was so out of gas that he didn’t even try to deny it. And when she listed all the vile stuff he has said about women, like ridiculing a beauty contest winner as “Miss Piggy,” like stating on camera that pregnancies were an inconvenience to employers, he sputtered a string of nothings: “I never said that (yes he did). Where did you find this? Where did you find this? Where did you find this?”
And when it was all over, Trump needed someone or something to blame – and, sure enough, he did! This is a real quote: “They gave me a defective mic. Did you notice that? The mic was defective within the room. No, no, I wonder – was that on purpose? Was that on purpose?” Perhaps, when his crack investigators wrap up their birth certificate probe in Hawaii, they can work on that.