Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Only one person on that stage was presidential

America, what you saw is what you’d get.

This was a debate that showed a woman with the experience, knowledge, maturity, and composure to be president — and a man who didn’t belong on the same stage with her.

Hillary Clinton simply took Donald Trump apart on Monday. Sometimes it was by sharply contrasting her plans with his, sometimes by revisiting his business record, sometimes by reminding viewers of his past comments and controversies.

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And so, for Trump, bad moment piled atop bad moment.

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His response on the birther issue was tantamount to a no contest plea. He simply had nothing to say that could plausibly excuse his invidious use of that racially tinged issue, other than to assert that Clinton associates had once trafficked in it as well. That boils down to this: There’s a credible accusation that, during the 2008 campaign, long-time Clinton associate Sid Blumenthal may have urged the McClatchy news organization to look into the matter of Obama’s birthplace. Blumenthal denies that, but even if he did as alleged, that would hardly excuse Trump’s long public exploitation of the issue.

Trump’s excuse for not releasing his taxes — I’m being audited — was, once again, thoroughly misleading. And though he may have been lukewarm about the Iraq war, his assertion that he had opposed the invasion is only plausible if you discount what he actually said at the time. His defense of his business record after Clinton reminded viewers that he had stiffed scores of contractors and had resorted to bankruptcy a half dozen times come down to the repeated assertion that he had built a great company. His it-was-mostly-about-Rosie O’Donnell defense of his swinish comments about women no doubt helped him consolidate the coveted caveman demographic, but beyond that, it simply left him looking sophomoric. Does he really expect anyone worried about buying a sexist pig in a poke to be reassured by that answer?

The contrast in demeanors was devastating. On the defensive for much of the second half of the debate, Trump oscillated between long-winded digressions, angry rants, and snappish retorts and accusations. Having rope-a-doped Trump into clumsy flailing, Clinton let him punch himself out — and then commenced her rebuttal with a laugh or a “whew,” or a quick rejoinder on one or two key points. She obviously knew she was helping her rival reveal the real Donald Trump to the world, and she clearly reveled in the exercise.

But even if Trump hadn’t spent much of the evening on the defensive, even if he hadn’t dissolved, yet again, into Captain Queeg mode, even if he had stayed equable, one couldn’t watch this and come away thinking that he was a passably knowledgeable candidate for president.

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Take foreign policy: Trump has spent months ranting about how terrible the Iran nuclear deal is, though it has actually worked quite well so far. But when Clinton asked what his alternative would have been, he had nothing to offer.

Or trade, supposedly his strong suit. Trump did score a point by noting that Clinton had flip-flopped on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, something she implausibly denied.

And yet, when Lester Holt repeatedly asked how he would bring back lost manufacturing jobs, all he could come up with was the assertion that you had to keep them from leaving in the first place. But how? Well, by threatening to slap large tariffs on their goods if they leave. Even if Trump could somehow persuade Congress to go along, that kind of company-specific tariff would be hugely problematic. On what basis, for example, would he differentiate between a newly departing company and one that moved its operations over the border a decade ago?

And on broader economic matters, Clinton noted, accurately, that the Trump’s massive tax cut plan is a return to the same old GOP supply-side (aka trickle-down) economic theories, which would result in trillions more debt, and, according to one analysis, lead to the loss of several million jobs, while hers would create several million more.

Trump didn’t just lose. He fell flat on his face.

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Clinton didn’t just win. She scored a victory impressive enough to persuade undecideds.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.