Slow Burn: The Final Presidential Debate

The third—and, mercifully, final—presidential debate tracked the contours of the campaign that’s unfolded since this summer’s conventions: an indeterminate beginning that saw fleeting flashes of a formidable Donald Trump candidacy, a middle when Trump’s alarming words and deeds rightfully doomed him, and an uninspiring if inevitable conclusion.

Unlike the previous debate, this one began not with questions about Trump’s lewd descriptions of sexually assaulting women, but with the topic of Supreme Court nominations. Trump made perhaps his most sustained appeal to white evangelicals and conservative Christians, promising to nominate originalist judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade. He also denounced late-term abortions and repeatedly pledged to uphold the Second Amendment, touting his endorsement by the NRA. Hillary replied by describing the justices she would put forward as being on the side of ordinary Americans, especially women and LGBT people. She decried the Citizens United decision that allowed “dark money” to flood into the political process. And she didn’t back down from defending a woman’s right to choose, seemingly without qualification or limit.

It was a muted start to a debate in which the struggling, down-nearly-double-digits Trump might have ranted about any number of anti-Clinton conspiracy theories or sordid Bill Clinton-related charges. For the first few segments, it even seemed like a fairly typical Republican debating a standard Democrat—a dynamic that, at least in comparison to his two previous debate performances, was an improvement for Trump.

There were moments during the debate that would have hurt Hillary more if she were running against a competent, sane candidate. The topic of Hillary’s private email server remains a weak one for her, and she didn’t have an effective answer to moderator Chris Wallace’s question about her “dream,” expressed in a Wikileaks-revealed speech to a Brazilian bank, of “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.” And despite his almost total lack of policy knowledge, Trump’s core economic message—on trade deals and manufacturing jobs especially—occasionally seems to capture more of the discontent simmering across the country than Hillary’s list-driven proposals aimed at shoring up the middle class.

Just as Trump’s campaign has been undone by his irrepressible horribleness, however, tonight he could not overcome the continuously accumulating evidence of his own misogyny, unfitness for office, and pathetically childish temperament. When Wallace raised the issue of Trump’s treatment of women, including the many women who have come forward to say Trump groped them since the Hollywood Access tape was made public, the debate began to inexorably become a disaster for Trump. He is incapable of real contrition, and was left calling his accusers liars and lamely trying to change the subject. Whatever gains he might have made in the first half of the debate—and to be clear, at best Trump was outperforming exceptionally low expectations, not “winning”—dissipated as his nastiness yet again was laid bare.

It only got worse for Trump from there. His answers to questions about ISIS and the Middle East were appallingly ignorant, incoherent jumbles of dubious assertions and blaming Hillary for all the ills of the region. As in both previous debates, Trump got worse as the debate wore on: Hillary expertly baited him, he lost focus, and whatever semblance of discipline he evinced was gone. And perhaps most damningly of all, Trump refused to affirm that he would accept the results of the election. “I’ll look at it at the time,” he said, “I’ll keep you in suspense.” (This is probably not the most shocking or unsettling statement Trump has given over the course of his candidacy, but it will unnerve many Americans and, I suspect, dominate the coverage of tonight’s contest.) When pressed about his claims of the election being rigged, he had no good answer, and Hillary simply embarrassed him by ticking off all the situations he’s said have been rigged over the years—including the Emmy’s. He called the Clinton Foundation a “criminal enterprise,” and said Hillary shouldn’t have been allowed to even run for president. By the end, Trump was a defeated man. At times, it seemed like even he might know this.

Hillary once again came prepared to undo Trump. Her attack lines worked, getting under his skin as he interrupted again and again by barking the word “wrong.” In all three debates, but the last two most of all, she’s played it conservatively: laying traps for Trump, methodically recounting the women and minorities he’s mocked and maligned, and offering an obvious contrast with Trump in terms of her knowledge of policy and the workings of government. This is not to say that Hillary “won” simply, or only, because Trump "lost;" that doesn’t give her nearly enough credit for three debate performances that were exceedingly well-planned and well-executed. Time after time, Hillary was able to get Trump (for example) to basically admit he doesn’t pay income taxes or (to take another) introduce opposition research that would dominate the next news cycle, such as with Trump’s insulting remarks about a former Miss Universe. She’s thrown him off balance by saying he choked when meeting the president of Mexico, or by reminding voters of the loans his father gave him, or by noting his many business failures. That Trump basically imploded by the end of every debate was not an accident.

The closing segments of the debate tonight provided ample evidence of why, even if the outcome of this election now seems almost inevitable, so many remain unenthusiastic about both candidates. Trump’s understanding of ISIS and our policy in the Middle East, as noted, was totally incoherent. But Hillary’s shuffling past concerns over whether or not her proposal for a no-fly zone in Syria could trigger a showdown with Russia—we’d negotiate all that ahead of time, apparently—did not inspire confidence. Especially given her own record of hawkishness and a penchant for wanting to topple regimes in the region.

The candidates’ final statements only underscored the situation we face. Trump, as usual, said he wanted to make America great again. Hillary, unbelievably, still does not seem able to provide a compelling, crisp answer to why she should be president. Bringing people together to help the middle class is not a real message. Her penchant for list-making and five-point responses conveys competence, but doesn’t stir the heart. Against Trump, this ultimately hasn’t mattered: Hillary’s earned the victory that all indications suggest will be hers. But when the threat of a bigoted reality star ascending to the highest office in the land no longer looms, what then? One worry will be gone, yes—others, though, will certainly remain. 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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