Hillary Clinton forced Donald Trump to play defense, a position in which we were not used to seeing him.
She seemed to calmly prosecute him on a number of issues — and started with the personal, a critique of how his father gave him $14 million, versus her father who ran a “small business.”
It was easy for an observer who has followed the campaign to guess that he was biting his tongue not to belittle her as he did his rivals in the Republican primary debates. He called her “Secretary Clinton” even as she called him “Donald.”
“Secretary Clinton — is that OK? I want you to be very happy,” he said early on with an edge.
At times when she smiled as if confident, he scowled as if pouting. At times she’d say something, and he would make an exasperated sound. At times, she blandly laid out pointed allegations, and he then worked so quickly and insistently to defend himself and justify past statements that the answers became disjointed and muddled.
She chased him around on matters easily anticipated: years of conspiracy claims about President Barack Obama’s birth; comments about women he had called “pigs, slobs and dogs;” comments about Hispanics; nuclear weapons; NATO; failure to release taxes, etc.
But he also got to go on the offensive in familiar ways.
Trump attacked the NAFTA deal peddled in the 1990s by the Clinton administration, slammed “hacks” in charge of the government, and again laid blame for the rise of ISIS on American policy that left a power vacuum in the Mideast.
He drew a grim portrait of inner cities and crime, which Clinton said put a negative light on African-American communities.
At one point Trump engaged in an unusual “yes-you-did-no-you-didn’t” with moderator Lester Holt on a broadcast statement he made long ago where he said he supported the Iraq invasion but it should have been done right the first time.
If Trump grew a bit testy with Holt, though, it was never to the point of open complaint. Other such signs of relative restraint included his expressed willingness to accept the results of the election.
And there were several occasions on which he actually said he agreed with Clinton on specific matters, such as the need to build better relations between minority communities and police — even as they tangled over so-called “stop and frisk.”
Whether the drift changes in the next debate will come down to a matter of strategy in both camps. Trump & Co. will say he was successful this time, while Clinton fans claim a win, and it is hard to say if either added to their numbers during the performance.
Trump’s garbled messages included an exchange over ISIS. “At least I have a plan,” Clinton said, leading him to bash the idea of telegraphing plans to the enemy. At one point he said, “No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire life.”
Expressing surprise at this claim, she said: “Go to the fact checkers.’