Daniel R. Basso

Monday’s debate was schoolyard politics and, to me, it occasionally resembled a good, old-fashioned game of schoolyard basketball.

I could picture Democrat Hillary Clinton guarding the lane as Republican Donald Trump, needing only a layup to claim a win (in this case, only to be level-headed), tried to drive the lane.

Clinton took the charge early and both tumbled to the ground. As spectators milled around and helped pick them up off the ground, somebody shouted, “No blood. No foul. Play on.”

Clinton’s ball top of the key.

Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but it seemed clear Clinton did what she needed to do and Trump didn’t the minimum to claim a win — even though I’m sure his camp is busy today trying to spin it that way.

The night was hyped by national TV networks as the most important moment of the presidential campaign. Perhaps it was, but with two more debates ahead and memories of how President Barack Obama recovered from an underachieving opening debate, it seems unlikely to be the final word on who wins in November.

Moderator Lester Holt did an OK job handling two strong personalities, but at times it seemed he swallowed his whistle and got out of the way so he didn’t get hurt. That’s OK, too. It made the night more interesting. By the end, a heated Trump was rambling on as he likes to do and Clinton was smiling as she gave him all the rope he wanted.

Holt did stand pretty firm on two issues Trump wants to go away: birtherism and his lack of opposition to the Iraq War. Trump tried to make the case Clinton’s camp started questioning Obama’s claim to citizenship. Holt replied it was Trump who perpetuated the falsehood for five years.

Trump also denied backing the Iraq War and newly claimed he told Sean Hannity of his opposition multiple times. Holt correctly pointed to a 2002 interview as the only credible source of documentation prior to the war. In my view, saying he told Hannity is kind of like, “Ask my mom, I was home sleeping when those windows were broken.” I would question Hannity’s impartiality.

Trump made some good points, and tried to make some good dirt stick to Clinton, but the experienced debater was able to wriggle away and often turn the focus back to the Republican.

In reference to Trump’s refusal to provide his tax returns — he steadfastly says his lawyers advise against it while he’s under audit — he said he’d release his returns when Hillary releases some 30,000 emails she is supposed to have deleted. I’m not sure how you release anything that’s been deleted, but it was a great pivot to an issue that’s deviled Clinton. But he couldn’t make it stick.

For her part, Clinton once again apologized for using a private email server and swiftly threw out multiple guesses as to why Trump won’t release his tax returns — while she has nearly three decades worth in the public domain.

Holt missed a chance to ask a followup to Clinton about the emails, and instead she scored points while the debate never again touched on her continuing issue.

The candidates discussed cyber war, the fight against ISIS, racism, prosperity and a number of issues that weren’t really on the agenda.

I found it a little annoying that Clinton kept pointing people to her website — I wanted to hear the answers, not look them up. I thought it was hypocritical that Trump basked in the glow of endorsements from “hundreds” of generals just weeks after talking about how awful the military leadership is. He mentioned endorsements several times, always adding “There’s more coming.” We’ll see.

Clinton maintained her composure throughout. She also seemed to get in the best one-liners, something Trump typically does well. After a particularly long Trump comment, she smiled widely and noted Trump was living in his own reality. Boom.

At times, I thought Trump seemed almost whiny. He complained that Clinton had run a bunch of really mean ads about him. He knows this is a political campaign, right? The tough guy seemed taken aback that the opposition might slam him.

In the end, Trump made a solid effort early on to look and sound presidential, but he slid back toward his usual methods as the night wore on. Clinton, maintained her composure, and while she didn’t have to really answer her biggest critiques, she didn’t lose the night with a reckless statement, ill-advised sigh or wristwatch check.

Trump simply underwhelmed despite his bluster.

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