Notes and Thoughts on the Third Presidential Debate

It’s been nearly two weeks since I watched the third presidential debate live, and I’m only now finding time to clean up my notes and post them here. I apologize for the delay, but there’s something you should know.

A lot of fetid water has passed under the bridge since then, but the third debate is not old news. In terms of substance it’s probably the high point of the campaign. As we end the month of Icktober on the calendar but not in spirit, this is the debate you should watch — if you think our politics ought to be about policy; if you long for a bygone day when a presidential campaign wasn’t mostly about sleaze, thuggery, boorishness, and corruption; or if you want to compare the actions of the eventual winner to his or her declarations during the campaign.

I won’t offer a comprehensive summary of the debate; it’s simple enough to watch the whole thing on YouTube or at least read a complete transcript. (I recommend watching it, if you have 90 minutes.) I will try to give you the flavor of it, and I have a few thoughts on what was said.

Bear in mind that I don’t support either candidate, but I do have a set of mostly conservative political views. So my thoughts are not neutral, where most actual issues are concerned.

Pregame

I usually ride the train to and from work, but on this day I had to drive. Getting home took very nearly two hours. I turned the radio away from pre-debate chatter to sports talk, and I tried not to think about how I would be spending my evening. For what I believe were nonpolitical physiological reasons, I was feeling somewhat nauseous.

At 7:00 p.m., as I turned on the television in my home office and settled into a chair at my desk to take notes, I wondered if I’d be feeling considerably more nauseous by the time the debate was over — for entirely political reasons. The first two debates gave ample cause to  believe that I might.

The talking heads doing the pregame show on ABC wondered the same thing in their own way. They speculated that this might be the ugliest of the three debates, noting that there had been no end to the scandalous revelations about both candidates and the scandalous statements by the GOP nominee. Moreover, this would be Mr. Trump’s last major chance to address the nation before the election.

third presidential debate

It Begins

Here’s the thing. Ten or fifteen minutes later, I was surprised, almost stunned, and, if I’m not mistaken, genuinely delighted. The moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, was moderating intelligently and skillfully. The candidates were talking about major, substantive policy issues.

Mrs. Clinton, who is nothing if not a policy wonk, is much better at talking policy, to the point that I had wondered aloud after the earlier debates why she kept slipping into personal attacks. Granted, there’s a wealth of fodder for such attacks on Mr. Trump, but we’ve heard it all before, and the big media acronyms won’t less us forget it. I thought she could fairly pummel him with policy — to the point that even the majority of voters who aren’t policy wonks could see a clear difference.

Eventually, there were sharp personal blows by both candidates, because character and temperament are major, legitimate issues in this election. But there was more and better discussion of policy in this debate than the others, and the fit-for-office blows were fewer, better aimed, and less repetitive than before.

As I said, this is the debate you should watch, if you go back and watch one.

In General, How They Did

In the main, Mr. Trump more or less held his own. He was helped by the fact that expectations are infamously low, and even the longest responses were formally (if not quite actually) limited to two minutes. I suspect that on most policy topics he’d run out of germane and coherent things to say after three or four minutes at most, while Mrs. Clinton would just be getting warmed up. But even he has enough policy in his head by this point of the presidential campaign to survive short rounds against a well-seasoned, carefully rehearsed policy wonk.

I’ll indulge more detail below, but first, most readers will want to know who won the debate. The answer is, I don’t know. Mr. Trump said something which could prove to be the gaffe that seals the election for Mrs. Clinton; the media was in a frenzy afterward, trying to make it so. Or it may have been a brilliant play to get his foul mouth and related allegations off the front page — using something he can probably walk back later.

I’m thinking more the latter than the former, though any brilliance may have been accidental, not calculated . . . of which more later.

I’m going with this answer: neither lost, and neither won. If you want to say that mere survival was a win for Mr. Trump, after the week he had, maybe you’d have to say it went a little better for him than for her. She’s still more fluent with policy (even if I often don’t like her policies) . . . but this election isn’t about policy.

Light, Dark, and Cold

There was a fair distance between their podiums on the stage in Las Vegas. The candidates emerged from different directions and went straight to their podiums, not meeting in the middle to shake hands.

At the end of the debate, Mrs. Clinton went to the front to shake hands with the moderator. He waited until she had moved on, then went and took the moderator’s hand himself.

For the hour and a half in between, she mostly smiled while he talked, and he mostly scowled while she talked. She ran over time at least as much as he did, and usually for longer. But there were fewer interruptions from both candidates than we’ve seen before. At least that was my impression. I didn’t count them.

He wore a dark suit. She wore white and called him and his campaign dark — and if you think that wasn’t by design, you’re just not paying attention.

Maybe I’m overreacting to amateurish moderation in the first two debates, but Chris Wallace was a delight. His questions were serious, specific, fact-based, and a bit aggressive. I thought he managed the candidates and the clock respectfully but firmly.

Questions

In fact, since I’m trying to give you the debate’s flavor, not substitute for your watching it by offering a comprehensive account, I’ll tell you many of the questions he asked, without necessarily reporting the candidates’ responses. I’ll intersperse some of my own thoughts, including some things I think a more competent Republican could and should have said.

Constitution

First of all, where do you want to see the [Supreme] Court take the country? And secondly, what’s your view on how the Constitution should be interpreted? Do the Founders’ words mean what they say, or is it a living document to be applied flexibly, according to changing circumstances?

The answers weren’t wonderful or even relentlessly on point, but it’s a fine question — even if I dispute the premise that it’s the Supreme Court’s job to take the country anywhere.

Mr. Trump promised to appoint great conservative scholars to the Court. Mrs. Clinton said the court should be on the side of the people, not the powerful and wealthy. It must defend women’s and LGBT rights and Roe v. Wade. It should overturn Citizens United and — please dear reader, tell me the irony is not lost on you — get the “dark, unaccountable money” out of our politics.

She said, “The Supreme Court should represent all of us.”

I disagree; it is not a representative body. Its job is responsible reading and judicious interpretation of the law. We have other branches of government which ought to be representative, one in particular. But I do agree with her that the Senate should vote on President Obama’s current nominee.

Secretary Clinton, you said last year, and let me quote, “The Supreme Court is wrong on the Second Amendment.” And now, in fact, in the 2008 Heller case the court ruled that there is a constitutional right to bear arms, but a right that is reasonably limited. Those were the words of [Justice] Antonin Scalia, who wrote the decision. What’s wrong with that?

Mrs. Clinton spoke of background checks and closing loopholes — a much more moderate position than her own, I believe (not without evidence).

Mr. Trump pointed out that Chicago has the toughest gun laws and the most gun violence — not a nuanced position, to be sure, but it’s a datum which doesn’t require or admit much nuance.

[To Mr. Trump:] How will you ensure the Second Amendment is protected? You just heard Secretary Clinton’s answer. Does she persuade you that, while you may disagree on regulation, that . . . in fact she supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms?

. . .

Let me bring Mr. Trump back into this, because in fact you oppose any limits on assault weapons, any limits on high capacity magazines. You support a national right-to-carry law. Why, sir?

. . .

Mr. Trump, you’re pro-life. And I want to ask you specifically. Do you want the court, including the justices that you will name, to overturn Roe v. Wade, which includes, in fact states, a woman’s right to abortion?

. . .

Secretary Clinton, I want to explore how far you think the right to abortion goes. You have been quoted as saying that the fetus has no constitutional rights. You also voted against a ban on late term partial birth abortions. Why?

These are fine questions and well phrased, including the last.

Again, she moderated what historically has been her position and focused on protecting the health of the mother.

He got pretty graphic, saying she favors ripping babies out of the womb in the days before they’d be born.

If you were looking for deep, thoughtful answers, these were not they. But it was a fine question.

Immigration

Mr. Trump, you want to build a wall. Secretary Clinton, you have offered no specific plan for how you want to secure our southern border. Mr. Trump, you are calling for major deportations. Secretary Clinton, you say that within your first 100 days as president, you’re going to offer a package that includes a pathway to citizenship. The question really is, why are you right and your opponent wrong?

He said, among other things, “We have no country if we have no border.” And he tied the border issue to drugs rather effectively, I thought.

They went back and forth in predictable ways. He had to mention NAFTA, and she accused him of exploiting illegal workers. But this segment went to the narrator, for asking this question:

Secretary Clinton, I want to clear up your position on this issue because in a speech you gave to a Brazilian bank, for which you were paid $225,000, we’ve learned from Wikileaks, that you said this. . . . “My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders.”

Did she answer it? you ask.

Yes and no. It was her “Abe Lincoln made me do it” moment, I thought. Her exact words, as I noted them, were these: “I was talking about energy.”

Yeah, no. (Never used that phrase before. Thought I’d try it.)

Then she mentioned WikiLeaks and the Russian government’s alleged attempts to tamper with the election.

He said, “That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders.”

The audience audibly loved that, for which the moderator duly chastised them.

Russia, WikiLeaks, Election

[To Mr. Trump:] The top national security officials of this country do believe that Russia has been behind these hacks. Even if you don’t know for sure whether they are, do you condemn any interference by Russia in the American election?

I’ll mention his immediate response later, to make a larger point. Here’s some of what followed.

He, of her: “Putin has no respect for this person.” (Likely true of both, I thought.)

She: “He [Putin] would rather have a puppet [Trump] for president.”

She: “We’ve never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our elections.” (Surely no one with a healthy sense of history actually believes that, thought I.)

She: Seventeen US intelligence agencies agree that the Russians are behind the leaks. (Thought I, we have seventeen intelligence agencies? Do we even need half that many? And how many of them don’t work for President Obama, and therefore might be willing to offer an objective or dissenting view?)

He: Putin has outsmarted her and President Obama at every step of the way.

Along the way, in response to a tired charge about Mr. Trump’s alleged desire to use nukes, if we let him anywhere near the launch codes, he said words which I note simply because in former elections, candidates had gentler ways of calling opponents liars than actually calling them liars: “She’s been proven to be a liar in so many different ways. This is just another lie.”

Economy

You also have very different ideas about how to get the economy growing faster. Secretary Clinton, in your plan, government plays a big role. You see more government spending, more entitlements, more tax credits, more tax penalties. Mr. Trump, you want to get government out with lower taxes and less regulation. We’re going to drill down into this a little bit more. In this overview, please explain to me why you believe your plan will create more jobs and growth for this country and your opponent’s plan will not.

. . .

Secretary Clinton, I want to pursue your plan because in many ways, it is similar to the Obama stimulus plan in 2009, which has led to the slowest GDP growth since 1949. . . . You told me in July when we spoke that the problem is that President Obama didn’t get to do enough in what he was trying to do with the stimulus. So is your plan basically more, even more of the Obama stimulus?

. . .

Mr. Trump, even conservative economists who have looked at your plan say that the numbers don’t add up. That your idea, and you’ve talked about 25 million jobs created. 4% growth . . . is unrealistic. And they say, you talk a lot about growing the energy industry. They say with oil prices as low as they are right now, that’s unrealistic as well. Your response?

In the economic discussion, she promised free tuition at state universities for students from families with less household incomes below $125,000. For a moment I thought she was also promising a balanced budget, but then she clarified that she was talking about her economic plan being revenue neutral when she said, “I will not add a penny to the debt.” She also promised to appoint a trade prosecutor.

He said her tax plan is a disaster, and NATO countries should bear their fair share of defense costs, and he’ll roll back NAFTA. I mostly heard blah, blah, blah.

She said he wants massive tax cuts for the wealthy, blah, blah, blah. No one ever mentions that the wealthy pay a wildly disproportionate share of taxes, so any serious tax relief will help them disproportionately. Very convenient, that.

Send in the Clowns

Mr. Trump, at the last debate, you said your talk about grabbing women was just that, talk, and that you’d never actually done it. And since then, as we all know, nine women have come forward and said that you either groped them or kissed them without their consent. Why would so many different women from so many different circumstances over so many different years, why would they all in this last couple of weeks . . . make up these stories? And since this is a question for both of you, Secretary Clinton, Mr. Trump says what your husband did and what you defended was even worse. Mr. Trump, you go first.

. . .

Secretary Clinton, during your 2009 Senate confirmation hearing you promised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with your dealing with the Clinton Foundation while you were Secretary of State, but e-mails show that donors got special access to you, those seeking grants for Haiti relief separately from non-donors, and some of those donors got contracts, government contracts, taxpayer money. Can you really say you’ve kept your pledge to that Senate committee, and why isn’t . . . what went on and between you and the Clinton Foundation . . . what Mr. Trump calls pay-to-play?

He pointed out that his new accusers have been discredited (perhaps overstating the universality of that).

She said, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger.” Notably, she did not answer the conflict of interest, pay-to-play question.

He asked, “Why don’t you give back the money you’ve taken from certain countries who treat certain groups of people so horribly?” I thought it was a particularly weak play from a strong hand.

third presidential debate

Rigged?

[To Mr. Trump:] You’ve been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you. Your running mate, Governor Pence, pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, will absolutely accept the result of this election. Today your daughter Ivanka said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election?

. . .

[A follow-up:] 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 no matter how hard fought a campaign is that, at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and 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?

He said, I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.

It was a childish, amateurish response.

She said, “That’s horrifying.” She was childish in her own way — a little too appalled, and much too verbose about it.

Later, the spin doctors of the big media acronyms were all abuzz. Was this the gaffe that would end the election? Clearly, they want it to be, but it’s not.

Granted, Mr. Trump should not say that the election is rigged because the media is biased. The media is transparently partisan in this election, but that doesn’t mean the election is rigged.

He should stop saying the election is rigged because there are 40 million people registered to vote who shouldn’t be — primarily because counties don’t aggressively purge people from the rolls when they die or move.

If there are dead people voting, if there are rigged election machines, if there are boxes of ballots already filled out for Mrs. Clinton, if there are systematic efforts to commit other kinds of election fraud, voter intimidation, and voter registration fraud — which the left denies exist in the United States, and of which we hear increasing reports — then he can say, maybe, that the election is rigged. But he needs to save that rhetoric for those situations.

Actually, what he really needs is to let others fight that battle, if it’s necessary. He has squandered his credibility on this point.

What he should have said in this debate is something like this, and the fact that he didn’t is symptomatic of a lack of political judgment and sound temperament, in my view.

“I’ve said over and over that we’re going to make America great again, and we will. One of the things that makes us great is that, even after a bitter, contentious campaign, the transfer of power from the old president to the new one is peaceful, even if they’re from different parties. I’m not saying I won’t demand a recount somewhere, or something like that, if it’s so close that it seems like something we should do, or if we’re convinced that something fraudulent has happened. But after that, when the election is over, it’s over. And whoever is sworn in on Inauguration Day becomes the president of all Americans, not just the ones who voted for him.”

If the moderator pressed him, “But will you accept the result?” . . .

“What does ‘accept the result’ mean to you, that’s different from what I just said? You’ll accept the result. She’ll accept the result. We’ll all accept the result, once we have a result.”

That said, the media’s exaggerated hand-wringing over this did push his foul mouth off the front page briefly, which (in principle) could have been his intention. And I doubt their spin gained any traction with anyone who wasn’t already against him.

It was quickly forgotten. WikiLeaks took over the news cycle, and now the candidate people are saying should step down is she, not he.

Which just goes to show you, the election’s not over until it’s over.

But someone still needs to take Mr. Trump aside, slap him silly, and tell him to stop playing games and start talking like a president — just in case the practice will come in handy later.

Middle East

The Iraqi offensive to take back Mosul has begun. If they are successful in pushing ISIS out of that city and out of all of Iraq, the question then becomes, what happens the day after, and that’s something whoever of you ends up as president is going to have to confront. Will you put US troops into that vacuum to make sure ISIS doesn’t come back or isn’t replaced by something even worse?

. . .

Secretary Clinton, you have talked about in the last debate and again today that you would impose a no-fly zone to try to protect the people of Aleppo and to stop the killing there. President Obama has refused to do that because he fears it’s gonna draw us closer and deeper into the conflict. And General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says [that if] you want to impose a no-fly zone, chances are you are going to get into a war, his words, with Syria and Russia. So the question I have is first, how do you respond to their concerns? Secondly, if you impose a no-fly zone and a Russian plane violates that, does President Clinton shoot that plane down?

She promised no soldiers in Iraq as an occupying force — which is a non-answer. It allows her to put soldiers in Iraq, as long as she doesn’t call them an occupying force.

She also promised an “intelligence surge.” I thought, yeah, we voters needed one of those in the primaries, but that one didn’t happen either.

Debt and Entitlements

Our national debt as a share of the economy, our GDP is now 77%. That’s the highest since just after World War II, but the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says, Secretary Clinton, under your plan, debt would rise to 86% of GDP for the next ten years. Mr. Trump, under your plan, they say it would rise to 105% of GDP over the next ten years. The question is, why are both of you ignoring this problem?

. . .

The biggest driver of our debt is entitlements, which is 60% of all federal spending. Now the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has looked at both of your plans and they say neither of you has a serious plan that is going to solve the fact that Medicare is going to run out of money in the 2020s, Social Security is going to run out of money in the 2030s, and at that time, recipients are going to take huge cuts in their benefits. In fact, the final question I want to ask you in this regard is — and let me start with you, Mr. Trump. Would President Trump make a deal to save Medicare and Social Security that included both tax increases and benefit cuts, in effect a grand bargain on entitlements?

These are superb questions. The only excellent part of their answers, I thought, was Mr. Trump pointing out that estimates are based on our current anemic growth, and the calculus changes dramatically if we can return to 4 to 6 percent annual growth.

She Coulda, He Shoulda

We have come to a pass where both parties seem identical in this way. Just as new executive power grabs by President Obama are scarcely news any more, and just as new reports of corruption or gross misbehavior by the Clintons scarcely move the needle of our outrage, since we have seen so many through half of my lifetime, so each new horror from Donald Trump’s mouth, present or past, adds virtually nothing to our sense of his loathsome character.

And just as the Democrats are and have been willing to overlook a multitude of sins committed by their own, so a certain number of Republicans are willing to tolerate a shocking depth of unsuitability in Mr. Trump, because he is their own.

It is well known — or widely believed, if you prefer — that the big media acronyms are almost universally in the tank for Mrs. Clinton in this race. One of the things that means is, she doesn’t have to rehash all the scandals, pseudo-scandals, and manufactured scandals. She can allude to them in passing, then delight us by talking about something else, as in policy.

She did much better at that in this debate; having a good moderator helped. But she could have done a lot more.

I doubt Mr. Trump could have done the same — and even he has the media working for him to some degree, because they can’t ignore all the WikiLeaks or the outrages which he utters (real or spinnable).

Mrs. Clinton’s biggest problem related to the leaks is not the level of cynicism, double-speaking, and corruption they reveal on her part. It’s how many of us are not hearing these things for the first time — or, when they do they come as news, how many of us are utterly unsurprised.

Mr. Trump has a similar problem. Even if the opposition twists some things he said to make him sound more extreme, we think they’re things he could have said. And when some of his alleged mistreatment of women turns out to have been fabricated, instead of thinking he’s innocent of such offenses generally, we wonder why his opponents go to the trouble of manufacturing stories, when his own lecherous and irresponsible words are enough to repel multitudes of voters.

Even in a substantive debate, as this third encounter mostly was, Mr. Trump has further liabilities.

He does a poor job of connecting his thoughts. For example, in discussing immigration he kept mentioning all of President Obama’s deportations. But he never actually completed his point: that his proposal isn’t all that different from the other party’s behavior, because they’ve deported many illegals.

Similarly, he fumbled when asked, “Do you condemn any interference by Russia in the American election?”

He said, “By Russia or by anybody else.”

He should have said something more like, “Yes, absolutely. I condemn such interference by Russia or by anybody else.”

Logically, it’s the same. But rhetorically one response is weak, can be mistaken for dissembling, and is a poor sound bite. The other is strong and clear.

And he should have added, “I also condemn the Obama administration for trying to influence the Israeli election to defeat Prime Minister Netanyahu — though it does give us a sense of whom the president considers an enemy, and whom he considers an ally.”

Mr. Trump either doesn’t think that well on his feet, or he simply doesn’t think that well.

Or, we have to say, no one slipped him the debate questions in advance — which hardly seems fair under the circumstances.

In any case, watch the debate. It wasn’t that bad — which in this race means it was refreshingly good. I was actually less nauseous when it ended than I was before it began.

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