It was viva Las Vegas Wednesday night for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They made their closing arguments to voters at the third and final 2016 presidential debate. Now begins the final lap before Election Day November 8th.
Predictably, there were sharp personal attacks, substantive policy discussion and Trump’s unmatched ability to provoke controversy. While Hillary stayed mostly on script and flashed her paste-on smile during the most brutal attacks by Trump, the billionaire mogul managed to make lemons out of lemonade.
What did 50 million viewers take from the harshest attacks of the three debates:
1) Hillary played it safe with her “rope-a-dope” strategy the entire night. She looked over-rehearsed and was ill-prepared for Trump’s thundering attack on partial birth abortions, which she supports, but tried to change the issue repeatedly.
Yet Hillary was running up the score with Trump’s brutish behavior that came across as rude rather than pronounced and steady oratory. What should have been his knockout blow was prevented by Donald Trump himself. He cannot handle attacks, and that derives from his billion-dollar empire filled with people who say, “Yes Mr. Trump.”
Hillary wasn’t a wallflower in any sense of the word. She attacked Trump aggressively, seeking a resounding victory that will rob her detractors of the argument that she lacks a mandate to govern. She ended her time on stage by saying, “I’m reaching out to all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents, and because we need everyone to help make our country what it needs to be.”
That followed an effective shaming of Trump for having taken out an advertisement in the 1980s that was critical of Ronald Reagan, the most revered figure in the modern conservative movement. That is unthinkable to conservative Republicans. It resonated with those conservatives in key rust belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Clinton was obviously running out the clock in her attempt to bring out Trump’s brash and tawdry statements he is famous for. That included Trump buying Chinese steel, his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his words about various races. She even suggested there is an internal war among Republicans concerning Trump’s ability to be president.
2) Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News began the questioning with the charges Trump groped women. It provided Clinton with her best open door to destroy Trump. Naturally Trump called it all lies and blamed the Clinton campaign of dirty tricks. He quipped, “I didn’t even apologize to my wife, who is sitting right here, because I didn’t do anything.”
Hillary returned fire saying, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there’s a woman anywhere that doesn’t know what that feels like.” Score a big point for Hillary.
The engagement stirred the audience and led to Wallace warning those booing and hissing to stay quiet. But the damage was done and Trump knew it. He spouted an off-the-cuff remark leaning into the microphone, “Such a nasty woman.” That aside, female voters make up an outsize portion of the electorate and may very well be responsible for sending Trump to a huge defeat on Nov. 8.
3) The headlines of the debate were cemented when Trump brazenly remarked his outright refusal to accept election results, when questioned by Wallace. Even Republicans have grown tired of Trump’s talk about a rigged election. He later rescinded the remarks in a rally in Ohio, but again, the damage was done.
Trump bellowed, “millions of people” who are registered to vote illegally, alleged that the media has “poisoned the minds of the voters,” and pledged to keep the nation in “suspense” over whether he’d concede the race to Clinton. The audience had a sense of bewilderment with the shuffling off-camera. Meanwhile, Hillary kept engaging that paste-on smile with all teeth showing.
It didn’t take long to see the backlash where he can least afford it. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) tweeted, “.@realDonaldTrump, saying that he might not accept an election result is beyond the pale.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has no love for Trump stated,
“Mr. Trump is doing the party and our country a great disservice by continuing to suggest the outcome of this election is out of his hands and ‘rigged’ against him. It will not be because the system is ‘rigged’ but because he failed as a candidate.”
4) It’s not that Trump didn’t have his own moments. He convincingly defended the conservative position against abortion and stayed on the attack against Clinton on her biggest vulnerabilities, raising questions about the FBI’s investigation into her private email server, donations from foreign governments to the Clinton Foundation and revelations from the WikiLeaks email dumps.
It seemed he was on the right track, but he could not focus on the message long enough. He allowed Clinton to counter even her most vulnerable flaws including the email scandal and her personal fingerprints on the Middle East eruption. Unfortunately for Trump, several instant polls named Clinton the winner.
Trump needed a campaign-altering moment, and it didn’t happen. His support is teetering on the edge of full collapse, stirring Republican fears that they could lose the House majority. The days of Trump in the primaries are fading into obscurity and his prospects in blue states are long gone.
5) The debates have not been about policy issues, but rather personal mudslinging in the most terrible form. Millions of Americans have tuned out and neither candidate’s message is coming through. But that said, Chris Wallace was able to highlight the discourse into specific areas of policy and for provoking some interesting exchanges between the candidates on gun rights, abortion, entitlements, immigration and foreign policy.
Trump banging away on the Aleppo disaster and Hillary’s involvement as secretary of state was flat. Instead, he was held to account for questionable remarks he’s made about Russia, Syria and war-torn areas in the Middle East. He struggled in his description of Hillary’s view of the Second Amendment and the reality she would fill as many as three Supreme Court vacancies.
These were Trump’s plump cherries to pick and leave Hillary looking inept and corrupt. It didn’t happen in any way with a “gotcha” moment Trump needed badly. Overall, Wallace was able to draw them away from scorched-earth combat, and that spelled doom for Donald Trump.