The third and (blessedly) final presidential debate was a microcosm of the entire contest since the primaries ended. Hillary Clinton was wrong on the issues, and often on the facts, and never satisfactorily answered a number of uncomfortable questions about her words, deeds and conflicts of interest.
And yet, Donald Trump managed to be worse.
Trump actually spent the first 30 minutes on stage at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas looking like a prepared and improved debater. The first question, about how each candidate would select Supreme Court justices, prompted Clinton to respond with a series of progressivist policy positions she would expect them to protect or produce; there was absolutely nothing in her answer about justices upholding, you know, the Constitution. Trump, on the other hand, immediately promised judges who would respect the Second Amendment and “interpret the Constitution the way the Founders intended.” From there, the discussion went to the D.C. v. Heller gun-control case — the facts of which Clinton totally butchered — and then to abortion. Clinton struggled to defend her votes against banning both partial-birth abortions and third-trimester abortions — two procedures on which the vast majority of Americans disagree with her.
A discussion of immigration policy went little better for her. (As an important aside, major kudos to moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, who produced the most substantive debate of the entire series as he persistently challenged both candidates’ weak spots.) She tried to have it both ways, claiming she’d voted for better border security while making it clear she favors no consequences whatsoever for those who cross our borders illegally. When asked about her reference in a speech in Brazil about “hemispheric open borders,” she tried to pivot to shaming Wallace for even bringing up the subject and to slamming Trump as complicit with a Russian government interference in our elections.
That was where Trump’s good night started to go sour.
Not for the first time, Trump voiced reluctance to believe U.S. intelligence reports about Russian connections to the rampant hacking of (mostly) Democratic emails and documents. It’s not a good look for a potential president to be seen as credulous about Moscow’s denials, rather than believing our own intelligence agencies.
A segment on the economy was pretty ho-hum — Clinton made a promise “not to add a penny to the debt” that she went on to repeat and will certainly break, while Trump made a fundamentally flawed comparison between our growth rate and those of India and China — and then we got to the Clinton Foundation. Hillary tried to deflect from Wallace’s questions about her conflicts of interest with the foundation while at State by pointing to the foundation’s good works, which didn’t work because he pushed her on them. So did Trump, and he didn’t really help himself. Unable once again to leave well enough alone, Trump just had to bring up his own foundation. That prompted Wallace to ask about its reported problems, and Clinton segued into another attack on Trump for not releasing his tax returns. Another unforced error on his part.
But it was nothing compared to what came next.
Wallace asked Trump about his claims the election is “rigged,” and offered him a chance to say he would accept the result whatever it may be. Trump declined. Not once, but twice.
The way Wallace framed the question (actually, the follow-up after Trump first demurred) is correct:
“But, sir, 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 is, that at the end of the campaign that 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?”
To which Trump replied: “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?”
This is yet another way in which Trump crosses a line from being merely “politically incorrect” toward outright recklessness. One can believe voter fraud exists, and take precautions to guard against it. It is another thing entirely to anticipate that there will be so much fraud, and that this is such a regular occurrence, that one can’t commit to accepting the results as American candidates have done for more than two centuries.
During the post-debate coverage, Fox News anchor Bret Baier noted a kind of symmetry between this moment and the very first question of the very first GOP primary debate in August 2015. That’s when Baier asked the Republican candidates if they would all commit to supporting the eventual nominee, and Trump alone refused to raise his hand. As I wrote last week, the first rule for understanding Trump is that he’s always looking out for No. 1 — not his family, not his business partners and employees, not the Republican Party, not the country, and not you. If he needs to inspire ugly behavior and even violence after the election to stroke his bruised ego, he’ll do it without a second thought or a moment of remorse.
But it won’t change the fact that, on Wednesday night as through the entire general election, Trump didn’t end up losing because of any unfair external forces, just the unfocused, undisciplined, unwise, unprepared and ultimately unserious way he has approached this entire endeavor.