Last week I wrote that I had watched the second Clinton/Trump debate and wish I hadn’t. I presumed that experience had taught me a lesson and that I would give the third debate a miss – I was wrong.
No sooner had I returned home from appearing on RTE Radio One’s Late Debate show last night, but I found myself switching over to CNN and settling in to watch the pre-debate coverage. I am glad I did.
Last night’s third and final presidential debate was both substantive and surreal in equal measure. Turning first to why it was substantive, the credit for that goes mainly to the moderator Chris Wallace.
He was firmly in charge, from the outset. He was also ready to assiduously pursue both candidates on their weak spots. In Donald Trump’s case that was character and temperament, in Hillary Clinton’s, it was the email server and her 30-year record in public life.
Perhaps one of the reasons the early sections seemed substantive and policy driven was because Wallace treated the event not so much as a debate, but rather as a parallel, twin-track interview.
Wallace paced and sequenced his questions well and stuck mainly to issues of policy, starting with the issue of appointments to the Supreme Court. Bizarrely, this suited Trump. He emerged, from the early sections, not so much as the winner, but as the most improved candidate.
He didn’t ever get ahead of Hillary on points but he came close to equalling her the odd time, landing political punches on Clinton, whose answers on her email server saga, trade deals and her 30-year record are still weak and unconvincing.
This was Trump doing what his campaign and GOP strategists have wanted and needed him to do all along, portray her as the 30-year Washington DC insider, a part of the failing system that is alienating middle America – in contrast to Trump the maverick, free-thinking, independent outsider.
But as we have seen before with Trump, his restraint function has a 30-minute limit. Once that is reached, Trump’s silver foot (to adapt an Ann Richard phrase) homes unerringly for his mouth, taking out a few teeth en route.
Clinton to threw out some well-baited lines… and Trump took them almost every time, playing directly into her well-crafted narrative of Trump as the petulant narcissist who can be baited with a tweet.
But as damaging (or effective) as Clinton’s baiting of Trump was the point at where the debate straying from substantive to surreal was not as a result of her baiting, it was an exclusively unforced error of Trump’s own making: his arrogant refusal to say that he would accept the outcome of election.
The full exchange is worth re-reading:
WALLACE: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you one more question on this topic. You have been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you. Your running mate, Governor Pence, pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, “will absolutely accept the result of this election.” And today your daughter Ivanka said the same thing. I want to ask you here on this stage tonight: Do you make the same commitment, that you will absolutely accept the result of the selection?
TRUMP: I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now. I will look at it at the time. What I’ve seen, what I’ve seen is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt. And the pile-on is so amazing. The New York Times actually wrote an article about it, that they don’t even care. It’s so dishonest. And they have poisoned the minds of the voters. But unfortunately for them, I think the voters are seeing through it. I think they’re going to see through it. We’ll find out on November 8.
Excuse me, Chris, if you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people registered to vote. This isn’t coming from me, from fury report and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote.
So let me just give you one other thing as I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I tell you one other thing. She shouldn’t be allowed to run. She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run. And just in that respect I say it’s rigged. Because she should never — Chris, she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.
WALLACE: But sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact one of the prides of this country, is the peaceful transition of power. No matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner—not saying that you are necessarily going to be the you loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner, and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying that you are not prepared now to commit to that principle?
TRUMP: “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?”
CLINTON: “Chris, let me respond to that because that is horrifying. You know, every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is is rigged against him. The FBI conducted a year-long investigation into my e-mails. They concluded there was no case. He said that the FBI was rigged. He lost the Iowa caucus; he lost the Wisconsin primary. He said the Republican primary was rigged against him. Then Trump University gets sued for fraud and racketeering. He claims the court system and the federal judge is rigged against him. 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.
At this precise moment Trump the man who can be baited by the simplest one-liner then doubled down on his own unforced error to inform Clinton and the great American voting public: “[I] Should have gotten it.”
And with that Trump ended his election campaign, taking his electoral status from “being toast” to “bitter charcoal”, effectively telling his voters, I can’t win because they will never let me win.
It was far from the sole moment of madness from Trump, but it is likely the one we will look back on and realise that’s when he ended it. Other moments from last night include him referring to illegal immigrants coming via Mexico as “bad hombres”.
Describing the impact that heroine and other drugs coming across the border from Mexico as “Poisoning the blood” and, amazingly, talked across Hillary Clinton calling her “Such a nasty woman” as she again baited him on tax and social security policy.
Here is a guy who started the debate, indeed has spent most of the last week, watching his support among women falling and seeing huge questions raised about his respect for women and he decides to use one of his last interjections in the final minutes of the last debate to utter the phrase: “Such a nasty woman”.
The task facing Trump last night was enormous, but he faced into it with the benefit of greatly diminished expectations. That task was to reach out to all those groups he has failed to reach thus far and try to bring them into his tent.
But I fear that is trying to apply standard political and campaigning logic to a campaign that doesn’t run on logic. To judge from his performance last night his tactic now is to damage Clinton in whatever way he can in the desperate hope of driving her support levels down below his.
It is the campaigning race to the bottom with added scorched earth, but even so, it is not a strategy that will work for him. Such is his vanity and self-obsession that he still cannot stop himself making the campaign about him at the very moment that it should be about her.