A round-up of the third—and final—US presidential debateby Andrew Stuttaford / October 20, 2016 / Leave a comment
Hillary and Donald didn’t shake hands. And nor did Melania and Bill. Expectations of a mudfight had been whipped up by Team Trump’s decision to bring along a number of guests designed to spook Team Clinton. These included four mothers of people killed by illegal aliens, the former fiancée (from the 1990s) of the US ambassador butchered in Libya, the (allegedly estranged) mother of another of the Benghazi victims, the wholly estranged half-brother of the current president of the United States, and a former TV reporter from Arkansas who has emerged in recent days to assert that she was sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton in the 1980s. Adding to the goodwill in the air, Trump had suggested last weekend that the two candidates should submit to a drug test beforehand. Hillary, he maintained, had been “all pumped up” at the beginning of the previous debate, but had appeared curiously drained by the end of it (“She could barely reach her car”).
But (slightly) less mud flew than anticipated last night and it was The Donald who did not seem quite himself. And this was not just because he came across as somewhat more prepared than usual. Uncharacteristically sotto, he gave an impression of being gently sedated, or at least of having listened to his more sensible advisers, except, of course, when he didn’t. He made the moderator (Fox News’ Chris Wallace, unquestionably the most accomplished performer of the evening) look like an accomplice by thanking him for asking Clinton a tough question. He probably irritated yet more of the female voters he desperately needs—against all the odds—to win over by referring to his opponent as “such a nasty woman.” He won’t have made a lot of new friends with his remark that there were “some bad hombres” among the illegal alien population. Mathematically (“some”) that must, I suppose, be an accurate enough observation, but, in just the latest of countless own goals, Trump managed to phrase it in a way that hinted at a racial animus not only disturbing to Latinos (like just about every minority group a largely lost constituency by now) but to many whites too. On some calculations, Trump will need the support of nearly two-thirds of white voters to win (compared with Romney’s 59 per cent in 2012). Good luck with that.
And then there was the way he dealt with questioning over his willingness to accept the result in November. Lest we forget, he has been complaining that the election is being rigged. After some toing and froing with Trump on this topic, Wallace asked this:
“There is a tradition in this country—in fact, one of the prides of this country—is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign…that at [its] end… the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you’re necessarily going to be the 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 you’re 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?”
That answer (“horrifying”, declared Clinton) became the talking point of the night among the commentariat, and, I suspect, not just among the commentariat. It was, to put it mildly, a remarkable thing for a major party nominee to say ahead of the election. Voting fraud is not exactly unknown in the US, and some grumbling by the unsuccessful candidate—even after a presidential vote— about dodgy doings at the polls, sometimes legitimately (Nixon in 1960), sometimes rather less so (Kerry and those Ohio voting machines in 2004) is another American tradition, but a formal challenge by the loser to the result is not: The Florida debacle in 2000 was a genuinely exceptional state of affairs.
Clinton: “You know, President Obama said the other day when you’re whining before the game is even finished…”
Looked at one way, Trump’s allegation that the election might be rigged (a term he has defined in different ways: it has, for example, included his argument that media bias has distorted the process) against him fits neatly into his outsider narrative and adds to his outsider appeal. Looked at another way, it will have reinforced the impression of many Americans that (as Clinton was not slow to argue) Trump is “not up to doing the job.” It also sounded like the prexcuse of a man who cannot cope with defeat. As Clinton jeered, “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.”
Trump couldn’t contain himself: “Should have gotten it!”
“Always crashing in the same car,” as someone once sang.
To be fair, Trump acquitted himself better in this debate than in the first two—low bar—but he did little to avert what looks like a clobbering next month. According to a CNN/ORC poll, 52 per cent of viewers thought that Clinton prevailed, as opposed to the 39 per cent who judged Trump the victor. It says something for the debating skills of a man who prides himself on his ability to close a deal that that was his highest score so far. The best that he can hope for is that his performance will not have cost him too many votes. Best guess: It didn’t. Between them, both Trump and Clinton said enough last night on a wide range of issues including immigration, gun rights, trade, terrorism and abortion to assure Trump’s core supporters that they were in the right place. His problem is that those core supporters are not numerous enough to propel him to the White House.
To attract additional voters last night, Trump needed either to clean up his own image or to make more of a mess of Hillary’s. He didn’t try too hard at the former. Judging by the laughter that greeted his claim that “nobody has more respect for women,” that was, in all probability, wise. Instead he concentrated on trying to drag Clinton down, something that would be very much easier were he not Trump. He attacked the Clinton Foundation (“a criminal enterprise”). She countered with the Trump Foundation (“bought a six-foot portrait of Donald”). He raised sleaze. She talked about his taxes. He complained about the foreign policy fiascoes of recent years. She brought up Putin. He threw in Bill Clinton. She threw back Donald Trump. Yes, Trump landed some blows (those errant emails, allegedly evidence of dirty tricks) but not enough, judging by that poll, to make much of a difference.
And so today Trump tweeted this: “Why didn’t Hillary Clinton announce that she was inappropriately given the debate questions—she secretly used them! Crooked Hillary.”
Always crashing in the same car.