Like countless other viewers, I wondered which Donald Trump would show up to debate Hillary Clinton: hyper Donald or sedate Donald.Hyper Donald is the one we usually see on the campaign trail screaming himself hoarse or delighting crowds with his ad-libbed speeches like a stand-up comedian. Hyper Donald is the one we usually read in snarky Twitter tweets that he sends out almost daily.Sedate Donald is the one whose impulses constantly pose a challenge to his advisers as they urge him to stick to his Teleprompter.After boasting that he wasn’t going to spend a lot of time preparing himself for his first debate with his Democratic opponent, the Republican nominee’s lack of preparation and impulse control showed themselves, as Trump might say, “big league.”He apparently had prepared himself enough to stick to his talking points for about the first 15 minutes of the 90-minute debate. From there on, former Secretary of State Clinton played him like a violin.In her opening statement, Clinton went on the attack against Trump’s biggest strength, his much-vaunted wealth and alleged business sense that ironically has helped to make him a populist hero of the working-class and middle-class conservatives who make up his base.Clinton attacked his image as a business genius and working-class hero by zeroing in on his borrowing $14 million from his father to start his real estate business.”Donald was very fortunate in his life and that’s all to his benefit,” she said, emphasizing the words “very fortunate.” Pointing out that “I have a different experience,” Clinton described her own father’s work as a drapery maker, a vignette that led up to her money line: Trump, she said, believes in “trumped up, trickle-down” economics.The line didn’t generate the laugh she might have hoped, but the night was still young.Instead of defending his economic savvy, Trump tried to defend his life of obvious privilege. “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,” Trump said. Indeed, but that was the first time that many of us have heard a multimillion-dollar IOU descried as “very small.”The rest of the debate could best be titled “Blown Opportunities.” At one point, for example, Clinton went after Trump’s refusal to reveal his tax returns, the first major presidential candidate to do so. Trump came back with a good line, by schoolyard argument standards, by saying, “I will release my tax returns, against my lawyer’s wishes, when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted.””Well, I think you’ve seen another example of bait-and-switch here,” said Clinton with a smile. She smiled a lot during the evening. She had good reasons for it besides the advice given to her by friend and foe alike to smile more.Instead of staying on the attack, Trump became defensive as Clinton recalled how he revealed while acquiring a casino license that he had not paid any income taxes. Trump’s response, “That makes me smart,” might impress his core supporters but probably won’t do much to expand his base.Similarly, his bait-and-switch tactics failed to deflect Holt’s question as to what took Trump so long to acknowledge that President Obama was born in the United States, contrary to Trump’s long-held doubts about the president’s Hawaiian birth certificate.”I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate,” Trump boasted, “and I think I did a good job.” But, as Holt noted, the president released his long-form birth certificate in 2011. Trump continued to question its authenticity until 2015. Now Trump said he wants to move on and “get back to fighting ISIS.” Fine but not before Hillary pilloried the inherent racism in Trump’s crusade.Trump bragged about how he wasn’t spending a lot of time preparing for the debate. He didn’t want to get in the way of his naturally charismatic self. The result turned out to be hyper Trump, whose insistence that his temperament was more presidential than Clinton’s brought the biggest laughs of the evening.”Just listen to what you heard,” she asked the audience during the strange back-and-forth over Trump’s birtherism. That’s the sound of a woman who does not want to get in the way of a man who is destroying himself.Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board.
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