So far, the reviews have been favorable for Clinton — more favorable than I thought they'd be.
My written assessment last night essentially dovetailed with Steve Schmidt's. On MSNBC, the former McCain aide gave the first 20 minutes or so to Trump, for he had the easier job of attacking that tired old bogeyman: the domestic status quo. The electorate has been brainwashed by pseudoconservative messaging that the American economy is wasting away in near-Great Depression territory, and all Trump needed to do was hammer away at this preconception. That he did, especially on that biggest of bogeymen, trade. But then the issue of birtherism was revived and Trump looked the lying fool that he is. Even worse, the discussion turned to foreign affairs — and Trump went kaboom. Perhaps his most mind-boggling as well as horrifying incoherence came when he coupled these two statements: "I would certainly not do [a nuclear] first strike"; on the other hand, "I can't take anything off the table."
So Trump was in character throughout: an utter buffoon. Still, I wanted to assess his performance as a non-political junkie might. And there, last night, I believed Trump's anti-trade demagoguery and magic job-creation formula would eclipse his staggering ignorance of foreign affairs. I must say that I've never been so happy to confess a cynical misunderestimation of the American electorate at large. A PPP poll gave the debate to Clinton, 51-40. Ninety percent — 18 out of 20 — of a CNN Florida focus group also gave Clinton the win. And Vox reports that "a focus group of Pennsylvania voters by GOP pollster Frank Luntz overwhelmingly thought Clinton had won." (A CNN poll showing that Clinton won 62-27 should be dismissed as laughable. Somewhat red-faced, the network's political analyst David Chalian admitted on-air before releasing the results that Democrats were vastly overpolled — 40-some-odd percent were Dems and only 20-some-odd percent were Republicans — which means that PPP's more subdued results are also more accurate. Nonetheless, the aggressive imbalance of CNN's results strongly suggests that undecided independents overwhelmingly favored Clinton, which accords with the two focus-group outcomes.)
Not to make too much of them, but the most intriguing aspect of PPP's results is the suggestive exactness of them, which is to say, the results reflect precisely what one might expect to see on the night of 8 November: A 51 percent Clinton victory, with Trump stuck at 40. True, that is optimistic. And yet for all of Democrats' all-too characteristic wailing about Clinton's recent slippage, the fundamentals of this election have not changed in months. Clinton possesses a winning coalition, Trump does not; notwithstanding national polling fluctuations, Clinton has rather consistently led Trump by roughly 5 points; and, above all, Trump continues to make an ass of himself.
And so I'll reverse my original assessment of last night — wrongly imbued as it was, I shall again confess, with disgust at the "middle" American electorate's gullible attraction to shiny objects — and declare it a splendid night for Hillary Clinton. On CNN's post-debate panel — which I watched after penning my initial assessment — the Trump camp was clearly on the defensive, with Dem partisans and straight journalists alike ripping into Trump's performance. This was key, since for the next several days it will help to mold still-unformed opinion among undecideds. And in the press this morning, some conservatives either soft on or hostile to Trump are bowing to Clinton's superior performance, rather than merely trashing Trump. Republican strategist Ed Rogers: "The bottom line: I call this debate marginally for Hillary." The American Enterprise Institute's Arthur Brooks: "Most people will say Mrs. Clinton got the better of these exchanges and had a good night." Other conservatives are more Trump-centric in their appraisals. Ross Douthat: "Donald Trump won the first 25 minutes of the first presidential debate…. [H]e seized on an issue, trade, where Hillary Clinton was awkward and defensive, and he hammered away at his strongest campaign theme: linking his opponent to every establishment failure and disappointment, and trying to make her experience a liability rather than a strength…. But then the rest of the debate happened…." And former W. speechwriter Peter Wehner: "What a fantastic moment, to see Donald Trump self-destruct in order to try to defend his lie that he opposed the Iraq war before it began…. For Trump to then follow up his tirade by insisting that he has the right temperament to be president shows you how unbalanced he is. The unmasking continues."
In short, the media's post-debate assessments are and will continue to be more important in calling the debate than the debate was itself. A "narrative" is being established, and it ain't a good one for Trump. What's more, undecideds seemed to independently assess Trump negatively — and that, I'd say, was the real shock of the evening.