“I also have a much better temperament than she does.”
— Donald Trump
In 1973, a trash-talking, over-age, self-described “chauvinist pig” named Bobby Riggs took on Billie Jean King in a tennis match in the Houston Astrodome that was billed as The Battle of the Sexes. King won in straight sets.
History repeated itself Monday in the first one-on-one debate of Donald Trump’s career.
After controlling himself for the first two questions, Trump discarded all the advice that he must have received from debate handlers like Roger Ailes. Drinking water nervously and grimacing when he wasn’t speaking, Trump began interrupting Hillary Clinton after almost every sentence.
While Trump’s shouted comments initially landed glancing blows (attacking Bill Clinton over NAFTA), the former reality-show host soon degenerated into pure gibberish. In the history of presidential debates, it is hard to top Trump’s non sequitur, “No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS all your life.”
In a 2000 Senate debate, Rick Lazio angrily walked over to Hillary Clinton’s lectern and demanded that she sign a pledge. The Lazio gambit was criticized afterward as re-enacting the kind of menacing moments that women fear. But compared to Trump, Lazio took etiquette lessons from Emily Post.
During it all, moderator Lester Holt played Caspar Milquetoast, a 1920s cartoon figure who personified soft-spoken timidity. In fact, it is safe to say that Holt gave potted plants a bad name.
In the debate, Trump boasted again that he wanted to keep his plans for taking on the Islamic State terror group a secret to maintain strategic advantage. But what was fascinating was that Trump’s debate strategy offered no surprises. It was a greatest hits tour of Trump’s rudest moments, devoid of even flashes of humor.
By playing to type, Trump played right into Clinton’s well-executed game plan. If there was a moment when Hillary sensed that it was going to be her night, it probably came when she baited Trump for the first time. In a riff on trickle-down economics, Clinton said that her opponent “started his business with $14 million borrowed from his father.”
It was a mild dig — and a more disciplined candidate might have ignored it. Instead, Trump began his answer on jobs by saying defensively, “Before we start on that — my father gave me a very small loan in 1975, and I built it into a company that’s worth many, many billions of dollars.”
By the way, the bilious billionaire’s answer on bringing back manufacturing jobs was a Trumpian tautology: “The first thing you do is don’t let the jobs leave.”
Even when Clinton handed him opportunities, Trump failed to seize the moment. In the midst of answer about enforcing the terms of trade deals, Hillary suddenly said, “I’m going to have a special prosecutor.” Now if there are two words that no Clinton should ever utter in a debate, they are “special prosecutor.” But, for the only time Monday night, Trump stayed silent.
Trump came across as the least prepared prime-time debater since the 1976 vice presidential face-off when Bob Dole slouched against the lectern and railed against “Democrat wars in this century.”
Violating every protocol of everyman politics, Trump actually bragged about not paying any taxes: “That makes me smart.” And unlike any prior candidate running for the commander in chief, Trump freely admitted that until recently, “I haven’t given lots of thought to NATO.”
History suggests that voters generally score debates more on presentation than on policy. But on both fronts, Clinton was at the top of her game, smiling frequently and naturally. If authenticity can be a learned skill, then the former secretary of state learned it for this debate.
As Tim Crouse recounted in “The Boys on the Bus,” his classic account of the press covering the 1972 campaign, reporters used to hover over the typewriter of Walter Mears, the AP correspondent, wanting to know what the news lead would be. That form of pack journalism now seems quaint, but even in an era of social media it takes a few days for the after-effects of a debate to percolate through the system.
That is why it is a risky game to predict where the polls will be at the end of the week. But it is hard to imagine that there was a single moment in the debate that would have convinced a wavering college-educated woman in the Philadelphia or Cincinnati suburbs to vote for Trump. In fact, Trump seemed to be debating with the single-minded goal of turning his gender gap into a canyon.
Forty-three years after the first Battle of the Sexes, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in straight sets.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.