“A shut-out,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews called it — a pretty fair metaphor for Donald Trump’s first foray into the one-on-one world of presidential debates.

I’m a Hillary backer, but — as some of my recent columns have indicated — not a particularly fervid one.

But that was then — after Monday night’s face-off with Trump, I’ve gone from lukewarm to pretty enthusiastic. In a two-way race for the presidency, the competence of the opposition is not an unimportant factor.

I’ve long thought, and written — and it’s hardly a unique view — that the unfortunate thing about this year’s election is that it boils down to which of the choices the Democrats and the Republicans have thrust upon us would we least like to see in the Oval Office.

No longer. Monday night’s show changed the equation: Hillary made a decidedly positive impression. Sure, it was partially a result of Trump making such a particularly disastrous one. But quite apart from his low-energy, know-nothing performance, Hillary knew her facts and she knew how to present them in understandable sentences. She was energetic and stamina-infused. In short, she not just won the debate — overwhelmingly — she seemed presidential.

And Trump knew he was out-gunned: he grew increasingly flustered, repetitious, often seeming to lose his train of thought. The side-by-side camera shots showed him grimacing or pouting as Hillary answered questions. 70 years old, or nearly so, he reminded me of nothing so much as a 7-year-old kid making faces behind the teacher’s back.

As the evening wore on, he chose oddly to talk about her lack of stamina, at a time when he was clearly fading. Going down the home stretch, she looked every bit as energetic and controlled as she did leaping from the starting gate. By contrast, Trump seemed worn out and exasperated, a slowly spinning glob of water disappearing down a drain.

At the end, he came up with an implied threat — or was it just another weird version of his constant self-congratulation — for not bringing up Bill Clinton's infidelities, a comment that seemed an admission that he had lost Round One of the month-long, three-round championship fight: “OK, you beat me this go-round, but I should get points for not hitting below the belt — which, be warned, I am likely to do next time.” 

And then as if pre-programmed to highlight his glaring personality flaws, right on cue Tuesday morning he started blaming everyone else for his lousy performance: it was the moderator’s fault; he asked me “unfair questions.” Someone sabotaged my microphone. “Yes, Donald, we understand, Donald. It’s OK, Donald, everything will be all right.”

To me the most convincing result was on CNN. They had gathered a group of 20 self-declared undecideds, who looked like a pretty typical collection of middle Americans. 18 out of 20 thought that Hillary had won. If that is a fair representation of the undecideds’ views — and subsequent informal polls Tuesday and Wednesday were pretty similar — then baseball is not the right metaphor: it wasn’t a shut-out; it was a knock-out.

 


But of course, since we’re into metaphors and cliches, the onslaught of fall notwithstanding, remember, “one swallow doesn’t make a spring.”

Trump’s greatest advantage — it’s clearly not his experience or his proven diplomatic and political skills — is the dissatisfaction that too many Americans feel about where the country is heading, and where they fit in. President Obama has been a reasonably successful president, especially when you consider he has had to face a Republican Congress more interested in blocking him than in finding productive compromises. 

On the international front, by concluding the deal with Iran, he has stopped not just their development of a nuclear weapon but, as well, a potential arms race in the Middle East. At the same time Obama has managed to keep the US from becoming militarily entangled in the Syrian quicksand in the center of the world’s most dangerous region. His Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) successfully tied the US into important trade arrangements with most of Asia while specifically leaving our main global challenger, China, on the sidelines.

Domestically, the current unemployment rate, below 5%, clearly indicates a strong recovery from the 2008-09 financial collapse his Republican predecessor had willed him. And our economic growth rate, if no longer mirroring the golden years of the last half of the 20th century, is far better than in any other Western country.

Nevertheless, the American Dream is, for too many, a memory, not a reality. So any Republican candidate — or almost any — has something of a built-in advantage over the Democratic successor to Obama. Luckily for the Demo-crats — and the obvious flip-side, unluckily for the Republicans — Trump is not just any Republican. He’s clearly inexperienced in foreign policy; he’s obnoxious and self-promoting: the more you see him, the less you respect him. And the less you can imagine him as president.

He had boasted in advance about his lack of preparation for the debate; he was so talented he could just wing it: the precise mixture of ignorance and misplaced self-confidence that would be dangerous in a president, and for the country, as he travels abroad for his first meeting with Russia’s Putin or China’s Xi — or even with Mexico’s Pena Nieto as Trump presents the bill for that fence they’re not going to pay for.

But the good news: if the reaction of those undecided voters to Monday’s contest with Hillary is any indication, Trump will not be our next president.  And don’t think the stock market didn’t notice —it was up well over a 100 points on Tuesday.

And the bad news: over 40 percent of the American public supports such a clearly unqualified charlatan to run our country — what are they thinking?