The third and final presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump exposed the true nature of the two candidates. Clinton emerged as well-prepared, hard-hitting, articulate and slippery. She also displayed just how far to the left she would take the Democratic Party—and seek to take the country—if she is elected.
Trump emerged as a man who can’t talk to the American people without raising concerns among many that he doesn’t get, and can’t appreciate, the American political system. Even when he is good (and this was his best debate performance), he ends up being bad. By refusing to give assurance that he will accept the electoral outcome even if he loses, Trump took the discourse of American presidential politics into entirely new—and potentially dangerous—territory.
The two existential challenges of any long-term government—democracy, dictatorship, oligarchy, royalty—are the necessity of legitimacy and the dangers of succession. The American Founders crafted a system designed to ensure both legitimacy and peaceful succession through a complex and delicately balanced system of popular sovereignty. That system is healthy only when the nation at large accepts its sanctity. Trump signaled that he might not accept it in the face of defeat.
The refusal was stunning in its revelation that this man who seeks the presidency wouldn’t perceive how incendiary—and, in the view of millions of Americans, disqualifying—such a pronouncement would be. Perhaps Trump didn’t really mean it. Perhaps he thought he was merely introducing “suspense” into the race, as he put it, when he said, “I will look at it at the time.” And no doubt his core supporters will defend the position, tossing out comparisons to Al Gore in 2000 or Andrew Jackson in 1824. But, in the annals of recent American presidential politics, it is difficult to think of a candidate pronouncement more guaranteed to stymie that candidate’s path to the White House.
Clinton, studied and pugnacious, avoided any such gaffe. After her first two outings with Trump, she had mastered the art of delivering body blows at every opportunity, citing specific episodes and anecdotes that she portrayed as demonstrating his unfitness for office—the controversy over his alleged mistreatment of women, his rough language toward illegal immigrants, his criticisms of a gold star family and a Hispanic federal judge, his purchase of Chinese steel to build his buildings. She chided him for not mentioning the border wall he wants to build during a recent visit with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. “He didn’t raise it,” she declared, clearly seeking to get Trump’s goat. “He choked.”
But Trump demonstrated greater self-control early in the debate than he has displayed at times previously, and he didn’t take the bait. He countered by saying Clinton wanted “open borders” and emphasizing the necessity any sovereign nation has for clearly delineated borders. “Either we have a country or we don’t,” he said. “Either we have borders or we don’t.”
But, when debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, queried Clinton about a recent WikiLeaks revelation that she extolled “open borders” to foreign bankers, the candidate deftly elided the thrust of the question by saying she was talking merely about the transfer of electrical energy across borders through an international grid system. Then she pounced on the WikiLeaks mention to slam Trump for not condemning the Russians, considered by U.S. intelligence services to be behind the WikiLeaks revelations.
Trump drew a smattering of laughter by calling her segue “a great pivot” and suggested nobody really knows who is behind the ongoing WikiLeaks revelations. He repeated his call for better U.S. relations with Russia, particularly in combatting the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria.
Clinton also demonstrated her rhetorical dexterity in avoiding any direct response to Wallace’s question about allegations of “pay to play” practices at the controversial Clinton Foundation, viewed by many as an institution designed primarily to bolster the Clintons’ political clout and generate huge speaking fees for both Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Democratic candidate launched into an extensive defense of the foundation’s lofty good works that proved so long and off-point that Wallace repeatedly sought to get her back to the question at hand. Clinton ignored him.
Trump seemed to enter the debate bent on avoiding the kind of jarringly harsh attacks he had engaged in previously, and he succeeded for the most part. But he still reached for his blunderbuss from time to time. “Look,” he said at one point, “she’s been proven to be a liar. This is just another lie.” And he reverted to form late in the debate when he interjected into one of her perorations, “What a nasty woman!”
Wallace, who seemed resolved to get the candidates into some substantive discussions on major issues facing the nation, elicited serious exchanges on the role of the Supreme Court in the American constitutional system, abortion, immigration, economic policy, trade and the burgeoning national debt, fueled significantly by unchecked entitlement spending. On the latter question, neither candidate demonstrated much credibility as someone who particularly cares about reining in federal spending. Clinton said she would “go where the money is”—the corporations and the rich—and placed unrealistic expectations on the capacity of this fiscal approach to address the debt problem. Trump, without much detail, said his policies, including big tax cuts, would generate so much economic growth, and federal revenue, that entitlement spending won’t be a problem.
Clinton seized every opportunity to direct her rhetoric to the constituent elements of her party—women, minorities, the LBGT community, affluent liberals. Hers was a program of expanded entitlements, including federal support for college students, greater aid to education, and a solution to the Affordable Care Act that would entail greater federal intervention into health care. She said little that separated her from her socialist opponent in the primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
In supporting his allegation that the election is “rigged,” Trump cited three elements of concern. First, the mainstream media — “so bad, so dishonest, so corrupt; it is poisoning the minds of the voters.” Second, he said millions of unqualified people have been added to the voter rolls when they shouldn’t be registered. Third, he said Clinton “should not be allowed to run,” presumably because of previous allegations of wrongdoing related to her private email server and the machinations of the Clinton Foundation.
While many observers, including some liberals, agree that the media establishment is largely against Trump, and probably more overtly than we have seen in recent memory, the suggestion that the media have poisoned the minds of citizens evinces a lack of faith in the voters’ ability to sort through the events of the day and arrive at sound political judgments. Such a suggestion has generally been considered politically unwise for people seeking voter approval. There is little evidence to support the allegation of massive voter fraud already in progress three weeks before Election Day, and election officials throughout the country, including Republicans, have debunked the notion. And to suggest the election is rigged because an opponent has been allowed into the race must be an unprecedented political argument by a presidential candidate. It isn’t likely that voters will flock to Trump based on the logic of it.
Clinton seemed ascendant going into the debate, and that probably won’t change as the nation absorbs the substance and atmospherics of this third confrontation. It’s difficult to see how Trump can pull to his banner large numbers of undecided and independent voters by undermining the legitimacy of the American system.
Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at the National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.
Image: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton/Wikimedia Commons