The third and final presidential debate just wrapped up. On the television in the far room the talking heads on the cable news channels are talking, as they do. Some of them are shouting. The crawl at the bottom of the CNN screen says Hillary Clinton won this one too – 52 to 39 percent – and that’s a carefully devised actual poll of an array of typical viewers, not an online vote-as-often-you-like Twitter thing. Donald Trump wins those. They make him happy. He offers them as proof of his amazing victory. Even Fox News has had to remind its on-air folks not to run with that. Let the dust settle. Wait for something that’s statistically sound.
That may not be necessary this time. This one started out boring – stuff for policy wonks – with Donald Trump well-behaved, relatively. He made his points and then scowled in angry silence. He didn’t interrupt Clinton, and then, after about twenty minutes, he did. And then he did again and again. She got to him.
He’s easily baited. He can’t help himself. It just took a bit longer this time. And then there was nothing new about this at all. Neither of them modified or deepened what they had been saying all along. There were only three surprises. Talking about the massive numbers of Mexican criminals among us, because of Obama or whatever, he said we’d get rid of those “hombres” – a word he probably shouldn’t have used – but he was never going to get the Hispanic vote so maybe that didn’t matter. He didn’t talk about niggers. That’s something. And late in the debate, in an aside dripping with contempt, as Clinton made a bit of a joke about him, he rolled his eyes and blurted out “Such a nasty women!” That won’t help with women voters, but then he lost most of them long ago. Too many women have come out of the woodwork and accused him of sexual assault, and can substantiate their claims. That vote is gone. His aside was a bit of a primal scream. It doesn’t matter now, but the third surprise may matter a bit more. He was asked, twice, if he would accept the results of the election. He said he’d wait and see. Maybe he would and maybe he wouldn’t. He preferred to keep America in suspense.
That didn’t go over well. No presidential candidate has ever said such a thing before. He thinks it’s all rigged against him, all of it. He should win, but the whole idea of American democracy may be a joke. Elections might be a joke. He didn’t suggest an alternative. When he said “No one respects women more than I do” the audience burst out in laughter. No one laughed at this. Some suggested this disqualified him. Those who run for office are supposed to believe in the democratic system – people vote, the votes are tallied, and that’s that. He’s not so sure about that.
But that’s getting ahead of things. Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker cover the other stuff:
After a sober start, the candidates shifted gears into a series of fiery exchanges over their fitness to serve as president and character traits. But over the course of the third and final debate, they delved deeper into their substantive differences than they did in the first two forums and offered a clearer contrast in the directions they would take the country. They drew sharp distinctions on the economy, trade, terrorism, immigration and hot-button social issues including abortion and guns.
Russian President Vladimir Putin loomed as an unseen third presence onstage. Clinton and Trump sparred over which of them would be more effective as commander in chief in dealing with his aggression and Russian cyberattacks. Clinton labeled Trump as Putin’s “puppet” – prompting Trump to snap back, “You’re the puppet!” – while Trump charged that Putin had “outsmarted and outplayed” her when she was secretary of state.
After Clinton cited the findings of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government had committed espionage – including by hacking the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta – to interfere in the U.S. election, Trump said he did not agree with that conclusion.
“Hillary, you have no idea,” Trump said. “Our country has no idea.”
His position was that no one knows that Russia did anything. Somehow he knows that those seventeen intelligence agencies were all wrong, each of them – not the sort of thing you want to hear from a future president. George Bush just knew, somehow, that Saddam Hussein had those weapons of mass destruction. Presidents shouldn’t listen to only those voices in their heads. Everyone now knows where that leads.
And there was that other matter:
Trump responded angrily to a question about the chorus of women who have stepped forward in recent days to accuse him of unwanted kissing and groping, in some cases recalling episodes dating back decades. “I didn’t know any of these women,” Trump insisted, dismissing all of their stories as “lies.”
Clinton sought to claim the moral high ground by recounting Trump’s recent mockery of the women’s appearances and physiques on the campaign trail.
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” Clinton said. “He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there’s a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like. We now know what Donald thinks, what he says and how he acts toward women. That’s who Donald is. I think it’s up to all of us to demonstrate who we are.”
Trump’s retort: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.”
In the debate hall, the audience laughed, prompting moderator Chris Wallace, of Fox News Channel, to admonish them. “Please, everybody,” he said.
That was funny, and a bit pathetic, and then there was the Supreme Court stuff:
“I feel strongly that the Supreme Court needs to stand on the side of the American people, not on the side of the powerful, corporations and the wealthy,” Clinton said.
Trump said he would appoint conservative justices who would be strict constitutionalists – “so, so important, the Constitution the way it was meant to be.” And he accused Clinton of wanting to appoint justices who would severely restrict gun rights, saying the Second Amendment is “under absolute siege.”
In her retort, Clinton noted that because she lived in Arkansas for 18 years and represented Upstate New York in the Senate, she has an appreciation for gun traditions. “But I also believe that there can and must be reasonable regulation,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s agenda of gun restrictions is especially popular among suburban women, who are among the key swing demographics in this election.
There was nothing new there, and there was discussion of abortion, and of course immigration, leading to this:
Clinton also accused Trump of getting weak in the knees when he met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City this summer because he did not bring up his vow that he would make the Mexican government pay for the border wall.
“He choked,” Clinton said. “And then got into a Twitter war because the Mexican president said, ‘I’m not paying for that wall.'”
He said nothing. She got to him again, and then there was this about Syria:
He criticized Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as “a bad guy,” but praised him for outsmarting President Obama and others who had called for Assad to step down. “He’s just much tougher, and much smarter, than her and Obama,” Trump said.
He said the same thing about Putin. He’s impressed with these two guys. He’s not impressed with Barack and Hillary. He’d be more like those two, perhaps, and no one understood what he was saying about Mosul.
Clinton won this one, but that’s a first take. This may play out differently in the coming days, but Josh Marshall offers this:
Winning or losing debates doesn’t matter. Mike Pence arguably won the Veep debate; but the net effect of the debate hurt his ticket. All that really matters is the impact debates have on the election outcome. Hillary Clinton now has a sizable lead. Trump was the one who needed to dramatically shift the trajectory of the election. By that measure, he clearly failed.
It’s also worth comparing this debate to the first two.
Trump had clearly prepared more for this debate. He was more disciplined than in the first debate and lacked the some of the bellicosity of the second. I couldn’t help noticing that he’d been prepped about not making sarcastic or grimacing expressions while Clinton was speaking. Not unlike the first debate, he kept his cool reasonably well for the first twenty to twenty-five minutes. But coming up on a half hour in Clinton started to get under his skin, started to get him angry. Yet it didn’t quite play out as it did in the first debate where he basically fell apart for the last hour of the debate and got pummeled. He was able to avoid really falling apart. He was mostly able to right himself and had some decent moments late in the debate.
But that’s not what matters:
The substance of the debate came down to two things. Clinton was able to deliver a handful of stinging blows against Trump, going as far as to call a “puppet” of Vladimir Putin. This was preceded by a brutal recitation of evidence that Trump is willingly going along with a foreign power trying to interfere in a US election. Later in the debate she went after him on his very long history of saying he was cheated or contests were “rigged” when he’s simply losing. These runs focused attention on Trump’s most dangerous qualities. He could do little to rebut them and he was quaking, with angry jabs here and there, “Such a nasty woman.”
More important however were the statements Clinton and Chris Wallace provoked. The biggest one of course was his repeated refusal to accept the result of a democratic election. When Wallace first asked he said: “I will look at it at the time.” When Wallace pressed him again he said: “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay.”
That kind of ‘suspense’ is precisely what makes democratic polities collapse. Vicious cycles of civic violence and violation of democratic norms have the pernicious effect of distorting and transforming the behavior of those who believe in democratic institutions. They create a setting in which it becomes rational to take steps that undermine them further. If you really don’t know if your opponent will accept the result of the election, you start taking steps to guard against what happens if he doesn’t. You take steps to protect yourself, your political future, maybe your safety and property. This is the death spiral of democracies.
That is serious stuff:
It is hard to weigh in the balance Trump’s violations of our democratic order but this was a considerably greater violation than the pledge to jail Clinton if he becomes president, though that was as former Attorney General Michael Mukasey accurately put it, “a watershed.” Yet they are both parts of the same civic cancer: politics through raw power and violence, as opposed to a combat of political forces, often unruly, mediated by the rule of law and respect for democratic institutions. The universal acceptance of those core rules allows everything that is vital in politics take to place. It’s really that bad.
But the man is who he is:
What I find notable is that Trump not only has little respect for our democratic institutions, his mindset and worldview makes it impossible for him to answer that question in a truly democratic, American way. For Trump, life is deal-making and power-plays. It’s dominance. Who negotiates with himself? Sure, I’ll probably accept the results but let me keep you guessing. Like anyone who deals in zero-sum adversary negotiations and operates in a mental world of dominance, the answer makes perfect sense. Why should I show you my cards when I don’t have to? But of course, in a democracy, under the rule of law, there are lines we never try to resist… Because of his primitive mentality and his indifference to democratic government this was impossible for him to see.
I suspect many among his core supporters will thrill to his defiance. But again, those people don’t amount to nearly enough votes to win the election. From the very start of the general election campaign the biggest liability Trump has carried is the perception that he lacks the temperament, emotional stability and judgment to be president. He confirmed that a thousand times over tonight.
That’s what people may see after the dust settles:
We could pick over the transcript for denials about the numerous sexual assault accusers, Syrian no fly zones, ISIS, this attack and that attack. There were countless snorts, unlovely phrases, distortions and falsehoods here and there, just as we had in the earlier debates. I barely remembered his outrageous claim that the long planned assault on Mosul was a campaign ploy to help Clinton. But this is what mattered in this debate. I suspect it will remain a dominant theme throughout the remaining three weeks of the campaign. And I’m confident this debate and that answer will be discussed, likely taught, for decades into the future.
So that’s the hot-take here, or one of them. There’s also Gail Collins:
Hillary Clinton noted that Trump tends to presume that whenever he loses anything, the system was rigged: “There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged.”
“I should have gotten it,” Trump retorted.
Did he want to prove her point? He did, and Collins was not surprised:
This is obviously what we should have known was coming when the host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” wound up as a presidential nominee. But jeepers, people, this is serious. Trump was refusing to acknowledge it was even possible for him to lose a fair fight. At one point, he announced the election was rigged because Hillary Clinton was in it. (“She should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with emails.”)
The rigged-election moment overshadowed everything else in the debate, during which Trump made very strange faces while Clinton was talking, but did manage to avoid going completely off the rails. Does that make him a success? We are once again faced with the problem of the very, very low bar. Still, no.
Now add this:
They also had a whopping argument about – guess who? Vladimir Putin! “Putin from everything I see has no respect for this person,” Trump said, referring to Clinton. The fight went on for a while, until she cannily managed to divert the discussion to the possibility of placing Trump’s “finger on the nuclear button.”
Okay, two critical takeaways. Trump won’t promise to concede if he loses, and if he wins, he gets control of the nukes. These are the only things you need to think about for the next two and a half weeks.
The rest, however, was expected:
We have been down this debate road before, and we knew before the evening started that when Trump was asked about groping women, he’d deny everything, blame it on Hillary Clinton and then bring up the emails. And that when the emails came up, Clinton would mention the way Trump insulted John McCain’s war record, the Mexican-American judge and the parents of the dead war hero.
“Such a nasty woman,” Trump said at one point. As the debate went on, he got more sullen, his expressions stranger. One of the things we have now learned for sure, three debates running, is that he has a serious stamina problem. Hillary Clinton has many faults. She tends to give long, rather boring answers. She has never learned how to deal with the email question. But the woman is an absolute rock in these long-running, high-stress critical encounters.
Also, she made it very clear that she would accept the results of the election, even if she lost…
Later on CNN, his campaign manager said Trump would indeed accept the results “because he’s going to win the election.” This was not particularly reassuring.
And so with this:
He promised to run the country “the way I run my company,” and a great part of the listening public contemplated the fact that this is a guy who’s declared bankruptcy six times. But we’ve already forgotten all about it.
Collins seems a bit overwhelmed, but Maureen Dowd had this hot take:
Continuing to deploy lethal darts from her team of shrinks, Hillary Clinton baited Trump into a series of damaging nails-in-the-coffin statements. And it was so easy. The one-time litigator prosecuted the case against Trump, sparking another temperamental spiral, as effectively as Chris Christie once broke down Marco Rubio.
In Trump’s warped fun-house mirror of a psyche, every rejection is a small death. That is why he harps on humiliation, that America is being humiliated on the world stage, that we are losing potency – a theme that resonates with angry voters who feel humiliated by their dwindling economic fortunes and angry about illegal immigrants and refugees swarming in who might be competition.
That’s what Clinton understood:
No doubt it is hard for a man – whose lovely, sphinxlike wife rarely talks at dinners with friends to make room for more talking by Trump – to listen to an opinionated woman speak dismissively to him over 90 minutes.
When Clinton called Trump a Putin puppet, he unraveled, once more proving how malleable he is with anyone from Vladimir Putin to Clinton, who either praises him or pokes him.
“No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet,” he said, going into what the former Obama chief speechwriter Jon Favreau tweeted was “a full Baldwin.” Talking about Putin, Trump once more offered the simple reason he has flipped his party’s wary stance toward the Evil Empire, subjugating his party’s ideology to his own ego: “He said nice things about me.” Similarly, he reduced a debate about the Supreme Court to the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had attacked him and had to apologize.
He was so unnerved that he said one of the most shocking things ever heard in a debate, putting his ego ahead of American democracy.
People got that:
The inanity continued, naturally, when Trump spinners talked to the press after the debate.
As The Washington Post’s Robert Costa tweeted, Sarah Palin told reporters that Trump will accept only a “legitimate” election, and anything else would betray those who “died” for freedom.
And the Post’s Phil Rucker tweeted that “Giuliani just predicted Dems will ‘steal’ the election in Pennsylvania by busing in people from out of state to pose as dead people to cast ballots.”
This may only get worse for Trump, as even Fox News was dismayed:
The criticisms of Donald Trump refusal to say that he would accept the results of the election were broad and impassioned, with even pundits on Fox News calling his answer at Wednesday’s night’s debate “political suicide,” ” a totally wrong answer” and “not the way we play politics.”
“The headline out of this debate, as far as I can tell, is the refusal to say he would accept the results of the election. That doesn’t happen usually in America,” Brit Hume said. “It’s newsworthy, it’s controversial, it is a big deal. And so the question is, is that something that will help him? I doubt it.”
“The number one most discussed issue on social media tonight was Donald Trump’s unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of the results of the election,” Megyn Kelly said, while repeating his remarks. “That had the online equivalent of a jaw-drop among many Republicans even, as trouble that he didn’t need to stir up for himself and to take away from what was otherwise a fairly solid debate performance.”
In the same vein, other conservative pundits framed the remark as a devastating blemish on an otherwise above-average (for Trump) debate performance – though at least a few were willing to point out its dangers to democracy as well.
“When you say that you’ll consider it, you’ll think about it. To me, that’s a showstopper. I don’t know how you get past that,” said Juan Williams. “That’s not in our American tradition. That’s not the way we play politics.”
“He’s the guy that really needed to pull something off tonight, and even if he did, and he may well have in the eyes of many people, I think he stepped on it by refusing to say he would accept the results,” Hume said.
There was nowhere to hide:
Chris Stirewalt ticked off his own list of strong moments for Trump, before turning to election answer.
“Unfortunately for him, he said the thing about the elections and that is going to blow up everything else.”
Fox News figures were also quick to point out that Trump had put himself explicitly at odds with his own surrogates and advisers.
“I know they went over this in debate prep. And obviously Kellyanne Conway and others have out there publicly saying, ‘No-no-no. We’re not challenging. We’re just talking about the unfair media and Trump gave the answer he wanted to give,'” Howard Kurtz said, adding that, before that moment, he thought it was Trump’s best general election debate performance yet.
“But with that one answer – sometimes it takes one minute out of the 90 – Trump reset it. That’s going to be the big story,” Kurtz said.
“He blew it up by a totally wrong answer on accepting the results,” Charles Krauthammer said, calling it “a terrible mistake.”
“This was not a gaffe where you say something off the cuff and it’s what you think, but it’s wrong. You know that he had been coached on this. You know that his vice president had said, ‘Of course, we’ll accept the result,’ and his campaign manager and his daughter,” Krauthammer said. “You know he’s convinced this is something you want to take a stand on. The calculation – this is political suicide.”
Krauthammer is a trained psychiatrist. He should know. That was his hot take on all this, but no doubt Trump will say he won this thing.
Let the dust settle. Give it a day or two. Perhaps, in a few days, this will be seen as the debate that stopped Trump’s freefall in the polls and made him president. Or perhaps this will seem worse than all the immediate hot takes made this seem. Which will it be? Everyone knows.