Trump vs Clinton 3rd debate

Image courtesy of NBC News

What Happens in Vegas:

Final Debate May Change Few Minds

| published October 20, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Sports metaphors were inevitable, and indeed, they became frequent as the days and hours closed in on the last Presidential debate of 2016. For businessman Donald Trump, what was required was a knockout punch—a boxing analogy, appropriate perhaps for Las Vegas. For former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it may have been enough to run out the clock—a football imagery. Clinton is leading in most polls, so why risk it all now.

Whether either candidate effectively achieved those goals is now the subject of a much wider debate by U.S. voters more dissatisfied, at least according to many pollsters, with the two major choices for President in decades. With less than three weeks before Americans go to their polling places to choose their preferences, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton met for their final debate in Las Vegas in an event televised to a nation deeply divided and uneasy about the Democratic and Republican candidates.

The debate was marked by an ugly undertone of conspiracy theories and dark accusations, including meddling by Russian leaders in the U.S. elections, charges of voter fraud in various states, and questions over whether the election results will even be legitimate.

Polls show that Clinton has tweaked her lead over Trump, opening up a slightly larger gap than only two weeks prior. But those same polls still show that even among those who identify themselves as Democrats, some two thirds regard Clinton as untrustworthy and unaccountable. Democratic strategists worry that Clinton, though she leads Trumps by spread ranging from 4% to 6% nationally, has not effectively closed the deal.

Likewise, Trump, coming off a tough two weeks in which accusations of sexual harassment—coupled with video and audio evidence of his bragging of how women welcome his uninvited sexual advances—has snowballed into a virtual avalanche of problems for his campaign, prompting some already apprehensive Republicans into open rebellion. Republican strategists also fear that the damage wrought by Trump’s vexing campaign tone will be irreparable in the next few weeks as independent and undecided voters eliminate Trump as an option when they go to their polling places in November.

The debate may have done little to change the minds of already decided voters, nor to sway the hearts and minds of those voters uncertain or unsure of where to cast their vote. Despite an admirable attempt by debate moderator Chris Wallace to maintain order and decorum, keep the candidates from walking over each other, and reining-in a debate hall audience which at times grew gregarious, the forum spun out of control numerous times. Discussions about immigration, trade, foreign policy, ISIS, and a resurgent Russia sparked especially nasty exchanges between Clinton and Trump, and spawned huge waves of real-time conversation on social media as Americans watched the heated debate unfold.

The most dramatic and controversial element of Wednesday’s debate came when Trump was asked—in the middle of a heated exchange over accusations of meddling by Moscow and the recent release by Wiki Leaks of thousands of Clinton’s emails—whether he would respect and abide by the final election results, even if he loses in November. Trump said he would “wait and see,” indicating that he is unconvinced the election will be fair to him. Clinton suggested bluntly that Trumps refusal to embrace ahead of time the validity of the election outcome is just another example of his pattern of blaming someone or something else for his troubles—and in this case, she said, the businessman will “blame the system” for his electoral misfortune.

“One of the hallmarks,” Clinton said, “has always been that we accept the outcome of our elections…somebody wins, and somebody loses.”

Chris Wallace, a Fox News anchor and commentator who was generally praised as the “winner” of the debate for his stringent attempt to keep the event under control, crafted the first question into a look ahead at the future of the Supreme Court—a topic only briefly discussed in the previous debates. Wallace asked each candidate to offer a glimpse into how the court will be reshaped during the next four to eight years. Clinton responded by offering a litany of progressive and liberal concepts which would come under direct attack if the court’s balance is disrupted by two to three appointees by a conservative Republican. Trump said that he intends to appoint justices who would rule with the U.S. constitution as their priority. The question provoked several related discussions on abortion and gun rights, with no surprises.

Clinton reminded voters of her support of the 2nd amendment, which most constitutional experts agree permits citizens to own firearms. But she stressed that her differences with Trump come into full view when one compares her positions on background checks, screening, and the ready availability of automatic weapons. Clinton also said that Trump was beholden to the NRA, a charge which Trump denied. Trump sought to show the relative futility of guns laws, citing the extremely strict firearm regulations in place in Chicago which have done little to prevent the city from having the highest rate of gun violence and deaths from firearms of any city in the U.S.

Trump paced himself closely and tightly for the first 25 minutes or so, remaining fixed and sedate in his delivery and responses. The long, detailed discussion of the Supreme Court remained appropriately on the rails, with none of the explosive sideshows which have marked the first two debates. Trump’s controlled, even icy performance included at least one instance where he refused to take the bait from Clinton on the billionaire’s brief meeting with Mexico’s President last month. Trump seemed, at times, made of stone, even as Clinton—notably icy and robotic in the familiar way we have seen in so many previous debates, sought to draw Trump out into the open. Each candidate was playing a very conservative game.

But by the end of that first half hour, both candidates were in full swing attack mode, with Trump unleashing his boisterous inner self and going full throttle into attack mode. Clinton seemed barely able to control her anger, though she remained doggedly attached to her game plan. Trump, some have argued, morphed into a sort of parody of himself, as if Alec Baldwin’s dead-on Saturday Night Live satire of the billionaire—who has threatened to force the show’s cancellation—is instead the real Trump.

When Wallace brought up the inevitable issue of Trump’s now numerous alleged incidents of sexually inappropriate remarks and uninvited sexual advances, Trump hit back hard. The real estate executive called the recent wave of accusations of sexual impropriety “totally false” and strongly suggested that there was a direct and undeniable conspiracy at work between the Clinton strategists and members of the media—a charge he has leveled against both the Democrats and the press repeatedly in recent days as more women come forward with stories of Trump’s unwanted sexual advances. Trump has suggested some of the accusers have been paid off, others are seeking a few moments of media attention, and still others are tools of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign.

In most cases, Trump said, he didn’t even know the women who have made the charges against him. Trump called the current onslaught of charges phony and says that all nine of the stories told recently by nine different women have been “debunked” by the fact checkers.

Clinton said that the multiple accounts of encounters with Trump only reinforce what she has been saying for weeks—that Trump is a narcissist and an egoist only interested in his own gratification and someone with a deep disrespect for women. Clinton brushed aside the accusation that her campaign team is responsible for Trump’s current crop of accusers, and Clinton said Trump’s penchant for attributing it to conspiracy proves her point: when he runs into trouble, he blames his problems on other people and other forces.

“Donald thinks that belittling women makes him bigger,” Clinton said.

“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump insisted, prompting jeers from the audience in the hall.

Most controversially of all was Trump’s refusal—when asked at least twice by Wallace—to commit in advance to acknowledging the validity of the election if he loses. Trump said flatly that he would “wait and see,” repeating his position even after Wallace asked him a second time. In recent weeks, Trump has escalated this talking point in some key battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Trump has said that “the only way we would lose” the election is in the event of skullduggery at the polls or because of a “rigged system,” a phrase which Trump readily admits he borrowed from Clinton’s former Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders.

Wallace pressed hard on this point, insisting that Trump take a stand now. Trump demurred in dramatic style.

“I will tell you at that time,” Trump said, adding, to little humorous effect, “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

Clinton characterized Trump’s remark as “horrifying,” and indicated that she believed it was part of his pattern of blaming others for his losses and his paranoia that others are denying what is rightly his. Clinton also referred to similar complaints by Trump when his TV show failed to win an Emmy award, and his claims at that time that “the system is rigged.”

Trump joked that he still thought he should have won that Emmy award.

Clinton faced a series of thorny questions about her emails, a still unfolding slow motion drama which now includes recent leaked documents and emails via Wiki Leaks, correspondence between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department which confirms some of what the FBI and the Justice Department have implied for months—that there was an open line of preferential meetings and activities between the Foundation and State. Clinton sought to rapidly pivot each time the matter came up, a tactic not lost on Trump who even pointed out the deftness with which the former Secretary of State pivoted off the email matter.

But on several occasions Clinton used the pivot device as a tool to get away from her own thorny problems and turn attention instead to the explosive claim that Moscow is attempting to interfere in U.S. elections—with a clear preference in mind. Clinton said that the hacking and the meddling is coming “from the highest levels in Moscow,” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already chosen his preferred counterpart. The Wiki Leaks documents, Clinton has stressed, were stolen via Russian hackers, and some “17 intelligence and law enforcement agencies” have made that inescapable conclusion.

Clinton suggested that Trump, if elected, would be a “puppet” to Putin. Trump fired back.

“No puppet,” he said, adding “You’re the puppet!”

Trump again declared—as he has in the past—that it is not clear that Russia is behind a series of broad cyber-attacks on agencies and groups charged with the U.S. election, including voter registration offices in some 25 states, the offices of several Senators and Congresspersons, and the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. When Wallace pressed Trump to denounce Russia’s—or any foreign power, for that matter—for digital intrusions into government and election processes, Trump almost grudgingly agreed that the practice was “wrong” and deserved investigation.

Clinton also needled Trump on the issue of nuclear weapons, using comments made in the recent past by Trump to illustrate the billionaire’s poor fitness for command and his access to the nuclear codes. Clinton referenced recent speeches and interviews in which Trump seemed to indicate a willingness to use nuclear weapons Trump flatly denied that he had ever said such a thing, but reinforced his own position that no weapon or tool should ever be taken off the table when it comes to foreign negotiation and military options.

Trump lambasted Clinton for the strategy by the administration of Barack Obama to announce the U.S.-led coalition plan to retake Mosul—a battlefield plan announced by the Pentagon several months ago and now being implemented. Trump said that no general or civilian leader gains the upper hand by advertising military strategy ahead of time. Trump also suggested that the current military operations to retake Mosul were timed by Obama to create maximum political gain for Clinton, a claim which the former Secretary of State strongly rejected.

One notable factor in the debate was the careful and balanced intervention by moderator Wallace, who many reporters and editors agree managed the ebbs and the flow of the conversation with impeccable skill. Wallace was repeatedly forced to remind the live audience to remain silent, but he was generally able to do this without major disruptions to the proceedings. Wallace also managed—despite the immense challenge—to keep the two candidates focused on the issues at hand, though both Clinton and Trump managed to wander off topic on numerous occasions. A sure sign that Wallace performed as well as could be expected in the midst of such intense crossfire is that not only have other reporters and journalists praised his effort at maintaining the spirit of the presidential debate, but also no major complaints have been issued by either campaign, nor by any of the many surrogates for either Trump or Clinton.

Most analysts agree that few minds will be changed by the debate, and even fewer undecided or independent voters found much of anything useful in the forum—the last before Americans go to the polls on November 8.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Wild Town Hall Debate May Have changed Few Minds; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 10, 2016.

Trump Defiant as GOP Leaders Call for Ouster; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 8, 2016.