Presidential Debate #3 Recap: Bad Hombres in Vegas

hrc_djt_3aA failing candidacy, like a rotting corpse, emits an unmistakable odor of putrefaction and decay. For the traveling carnival of hucksterism that is the Trump-Pence campaign, it was quite a pungent whiff of desperation that greeted those arriving at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center for Wednesday’s final debate. Among the many flavors of crazy down at Trumpworld these days, my favorite is Chief Enabling Officer Kellyanne Conway’s plea that we share her astonishment that Clinton isn’t doing even better than she is. In other words, the person slamming my head into a wall is feckless because I’m not bleeding more profusely.

And make no mistake, Trump is flat lining: on the afternoon of the debate the most recent ten national polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight had Clinton up 9, 7, 5, 7, 5, 6, 12, 10, 11, and 5. (I’m omitting the GOP-overweighted USC/LA Times tracker which has it a dead heat, though an even race in that poll given its tilt is also bad news for Trump.) Most battleground states are trending Clinton’s way as well, though I find Nevada particularly telling. It’s a state where Trump looked viable last month, and it’s one he has to have, but his small but consistent September lead there has now vanished, big time.

One ray of hope that the cadaver can be defibrillated emanates from the unusually large number of voters backing neither Trump nor Clinton. The Johnson-plus-Other-plus-Undecided share has waned but remains up in the 10-15 point range total – quite high for this late in the game – but there’s little evidence that Trump stands to gain. In fact, a Washington Post analysis of these voters finds they dislike Trump a whole lot more than they dislike Clinton, and overwhelmingly view Trump as unqualified. If he can’t close the gap with undecideds and he can’t entice Clinton voters to cross the chasm of sanity over to his side, then his only option is a scorched earth effort to kill turnout which is basically what his Hillary-will-destroy-every-living-thing-in-the-universe endgame is all about (though to judge by the polls not working so far).

Asked in a pre-debate interview Wednesday for the one word of advice she’d give her candidate, Kellyanne Conway (who is clearly now phoning it in) said “focus.” The format called for six 15-minute topic-segments; that’s a lot of focusing for a guy who two debates ago defined attention to women’s issues as doubling down on his view that Rosie O’Donnell is a pig. Of course, instructing Trump to be focused is kind of like telling Marsha Blackburn to be thoughtful: just not in the DNA.  So what was in the DNA Wednesday in Vegas? Let’s go to the videotape…

6:50. A little over an hour before post time, Rudy Giuliani on CNN assures the viewing audience that Donald Trump has never molested his daughters. An apprehensive nation sighs in relief.

8:05. Moderator Chris Wallace kicks it off with the Supreme Court. Where do you want to see the court take the country, and how do you see constitutional interpretation? This opener yields a rather unexpected result: a pretty substantive and mostly civil exchange on a few hot-button SCOTUS issues, guided by Wallace’s genial but firm moderating hand. Clinton, as she does throughout the night, seeks to frame the question in broad conceptual terms, noting that the Supreme Court raises a central issue about the kind of country we want to have. Notes that she has “major disagreements” with her opponents on these issues. Trump describes the high court as “what it’s all about,” which is a curious departure because all this time we thought it was about him. Realizing his mistake he quickly moves to calling out Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg for having said mean things about him and later apologizing for them (which she did and she did) — ah yes, we are reassured, it is about him after all.

Some Second Amendment chatter ensues. Wallace pushes Clinton on her views of the Heller decision that created an individual right to gun ownership. She did a decent job triangulating between liking guns, hating guns, and wanting to regulate guns, though methinks saying “I live in upstate New York” as evidence of her support for the Second Amendment is somewhere between laughable and delusional. She lives in Chappaqua, in Westchester County — a place New Yorkers do not regard as genuinely “upstate” – a town with average incomes three times the national average, a negligible poverty rate, and a gaggle of resident titans of industry and entertainment. Gun totin’ frontier living this ain’t.  Trump accuses Clinton of having been “very very angry” at Heller. Clinton replies that well, yes, I do get upset when toddlers go on murderous rampages (though she didn’t use quite those words). Trump uses the occasion to take an effective pot shot at Chicago’s violence in the face of tough local gun laws, and I think “wow, DJT’s on the Adderall tonight.”

They close out the SCOTUS segment on abortion. Clinton is full throated in her defense of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood. Trump, who never misses an opportunity to put his ignorance of how government works on full display, tells us that the overturning of Roe “will happen automatically” once he puts his pro-life justices on the court. When Wallace pushes them on how far the existing right goes, Clinton gives a solid explanation of difficult late-term pregnancy issues in relation to life and health of the mother. Trump, who never misses an opportunity to put grotesquery on full display, blasts Clinton for being okay with the idea that “you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother” just prior to birth. But can you rip the candidate out of the debate? He doesn’t say.

8:20. On to the second segment: immigration. Why are you right and your opponent wrong? No big surprises here, though Trump does toss off his first bit of racist provocation of the evening when he defines the cross-border drug problem as one involving “some bad hombres.” (And within minutes the internet gives birth to a hashtag and a meme.) Clinton uses the story of a girl born in the U.S. to hard working undocumented immigrant parents to remind Latinos that “you’re not going to vote for that crazy hombre over there to my left, now are you?” She decides it’s past time to get under Trump’s skin a bit, reminding him that when he met with the Mexican president and had a chance to talk up his wall, “he choked.” Trump responds that the Mexican president is “a very nice man” and by the way Hillary speaking of Mexico your husband’s NAFTA deal “was one of the worst deals of any kind signed by anybody.” He didn’t call it a “bad hombre of a deal” but we know he wanted to. Clinton jabs back with the undocumented workers Trump used to built Trump Tower. Trump then reveals what he thinks is a big dirty secret that Obama has deported huge numbers of immigrants. But wait, what? I hate Obama and I’m praising him for throwing out brown people? Does not compute. Must stop talking now.

Chris Wallace confronts Clinton with her WikiLeaks-revealed dream (shared with Brazilian banker in one of those speeches) of a hemispheric common market with open borders. Is that your dream, open borders? Her prepared riposte — that she was talking in that speech about energy — is just so much nonsense. Seemingly cognizant of the nonsense quotient of the words she is speaking, Clinton pivots on the WikiLeaks fulcrum: Hey Chris, speaking of WikiLeaks, let’s talk Russians, hacking, Putin. Trump rightfully calls her out for the pivot away from defending her open borders comments, giving him the chance for his first serious rant of the night, about Syrian refugees (who by the way might be bad hombres), radical Islamic terrorism, and the fact that Putin “has no respect for her.” Clinton’s perfect comeback: “That’s because he’d rather have a puppet as President of the United States.” Trump juvenile comeback to that: “You’re the puppet.” Which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever.

An exchange follows on whether Russians (very bad hombres) are responsible for recent cyber attacks (which every single person on the planet except Donald Trump thinks is the case). With some mention of nukes as well, Clinton decides it’s time to remind us that her opponent is kind of frightening. She tells us that when a president gives an order to launch there’s about four minutes before it happens, and that why the folks who actually do this stuff don’t trust Trump to have finger on the button. Translation (which in my imaginary perfect world she would have spoken aloud): “This guy should scare the shit out of you.” “No, you,” imaginary Trump would inevitably reply.

We’re almost halfway in and the relatively composed and subdued Trump who started the debate is growing clearly more agitated, interrupting more, and generally turning into, well, regular Trump.

8:36. Segment 3 is the economy. And impressively our fantabulous moderator Chris Wallace is only a couple of minutes off his six-topic time block schedule. That makes him the clear winner so far.

Asked to defend their economic plans, Clinton throws up a classic laundry list of issues, her entire economic platform in two minutes, complete with the requisite Bernie Sanders nod-to-her-left namecheck. My plan creates 10 million jobs, his plan will cost us 3 million jobs. On the split screen Trump is unable to suppress his “good lord I hate that women” face. When it’s Trump’s turn he calls her tax plan a disaster then goes on a tangent hopping excursion through Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, alighting eventually at NATO headquarters (“I’m a big fan”). Tacks back to the domestic economy with paeans to free trade, NAFTA, tax cutting. On the split screen Clinton is unable to suppress her “good lord that man is an imbecile” face.

The rest of this segment is pretty much a pointless fog. Trump does raise eyebrows with a comment about having just met “some high representatives of India” though he doesn’t say what they were on. While he’s pretty effective on growth and trade – effective mainly because Clinton is an easy target here – she did come armed with a couple of zingers: Only one of us has shipped jobs to Mexico and that’s Donald; and when I was fighting against the Chinese dumping steel Donald was buying that steel – he gives jobs to Chinese steelworkers not American workers. Trump says, yeah, well, I wouldn’t have if you had just used your time in government to make that not possible. This is a curious argument he’s been making lately, and he hits it a couple of times tonight: You didn’t pass laws to stop me from doing bad things, so it’s your fault I did bad things. Always nice to see yourself as morally responsible for your own actions.

This exchange elicits the 30-years-and-nothing-to-show-for-it charge Trump has been leveling in recent weeks. Clinton came prepared with a canned answer — and a pretty good one — comparing her experiences with Trump’s over the years. Trump responds that hey, I build a fab company, and you gave us ISIS. And she’s going to get rid of ISIS? “She’s going to get rid of nobody.” Actually Donald I can think of one person she is well on her way to getting rid of, but I digress.

8:52. Segment 4: Fitness!  Drop and give me 20! And we go right to grabbingwomengate. So Donald, nine women say you groped them. Why would so many all in this last couple of weeks make up these stories? Trump responds with an odd back-and-forth mix of (1) those women are liars, and (2) Hillary incites violence at my rallies. Those women’s stories have been largely debunked. I assume it was her campaign that did it. When we had violence at our rallies she and Obama caused it.  I didn’t even apologize to my wife because I didn’t do anything. We have riots on tape started by her. Hillary got these women to step forward. Ping. Pong.

Clinton sighs and launches into Hillary on Donald on women. (Figuratively.)  “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger” and so now we know what he thinks and how he acts because “that’s who Donald is.” This is going well until she figures this is the place to drop in her already tired latest slogan “America is great because America is good.” A nation cringes. Trump responds with an oldie but goodie: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.” As some audience cackling audibly attests, it’s pretty remarkable that he can still say this with a straight face.

Wallace shifts the fitness discussion to Clinton with a rather well-formulated question about her foundation. She answers the actual question for about a sentence and then thinks she’ll just filibuster the rest of the two minutes with a live propaganda speechless about the fabulousness that is the good works of her foundation. Our moderator par excellence is having none of this, and chases her back to the question. When Trump gets his turn he calls her foundation “a criminal enterprise” (takes one to know one I always say) that takes money from “people that push gays off buildings.” Adds that he recently went to Miami’s Little Haiti and those people “hate the Clintons.” So there. An exchange on their foundations gives Clinton a chance to needle Trump over his tax returns, and point out that undocumented immigrants pay more federal income tax than he does. Here again he blames her for not changing the law that would constrain his bad behavior. I just don’t think that argument has legs. It’s not her fault that he doesn’t pay taxes.

Here Chris Wallace asks what he probably figures is a throw-away question to fill out the segment, but turns out to be the night’s big media shitstorm, asking Trump if he will honor America’s democratic tradition peaceful transition in which the loser concedes and country comes together. Trump, in full-on reality show executive producer mode, with the show stopper: “I will tell you at the time, I will keep you in suspense.” Clinton replies that this is typical — he always says things are rigged when things go badly for him. Even the Emmys! (Which I know is not rigged because the Mr. Robot guy won best actor.) A general shortcoming of Clinton’s at these things is that she often gets bogged down in wonkery, cogently arguing policy but failing to make the larger more meaningful point that would helps her audience grasp in vivid terms what is at stake. Here she overcomes that limitation: “He is talking down our democracy and I, for one, am appalled.”

There’s another odd aspect to the “rigged” business. Trump says the media (packed with bad hombres) is so dishonest and corrupt that “they poison the minds of the voters.” He adds that Clinton shouldn’t be allowed to run because she’s guilty of a very serious crime, “and in that respect I say it’s rigged.” So let me see if I have this right. The election is rigged because the person who is running against you is beating you like a drum. Now that’s a river in Egypt.

9:10 It’s on to segment 5 — the world’s hot spots (and we’re not talking Cancun here) — and we’re still almost on schedule. Chris Wallace is the God-king of moderators. So let’s talk us some ISIS.

chriswallace

Now that’s a good hombre.

To summarize this segment, Clinton says cautiously optimistic things about Mosul and ISIS, after which Trump goes on a couple of rant-tours through the Middle East seen though the eyes of a person who knows about as much about the Middle East as his 10-year-old kid. Mentions along the way that the Iran nuclear deal was “the stupidest deal of all time” which has us confused because about half an hour ago NAFTA was the worst deal of all time. On worst deals of all time he’s clearly a flipflopper. This is the one segment during which Clinton looks visibly pissed on the split screen while Trump is talking, but when she talks she sticks with the strategy: stay above the fray, explain her take thoughtfully (be almost intentionally boring), and let viewers take in Trump’s crazy man act without distraction.

9:25. Wallace goes to the last segment — the national debt. Normally viewership of these things drops off as time wears on, but you know that all of America hung in for that final climactic debt segment.

Trump, now basically willing to say just about anything, promises he’ll being GDP from 1% to 4% and maybe even 5 or 6%, which basically any economist of any stripe who is not institutionalized will tell you is loony. Clinton, trying to make the case that Trump has no grounded reality on these matters, informs us that back in 1987 he took out an expensive ad in The New York Times criticizing Reagan for the same thing he now criticizes Obama and Clinton for. Trump responds by throwing the all-omnipotent Saint Ronnie under the church bus: I disagree with Reagan on trade, he should have been much tougher. Reagan gets up, dusts himself off, and heads out to clear some brush.

They wrap it up on entitlements — Chris Wallace really did save the very best for last. The substance of their conversation wasn’t all that interesting, but Trump did figure out that he only has a few minutes left to remind the women of America, whose votes he clearly regards as uninteresting, of the magnitude of his own douchebaggery. While Clinton is waxing on about Social Security and Medicare premiums, at one point he leans in and interrupts with “such a nasty woman” and then a few seconds later “you’re husband disagrees with you.” Yep, that should nail down the suburban Philly female vote.

9:33.  We’re about out of time, but having made it through all six segments, Wallace invites from each an impromptu one-minute closing soliloquy. Clinton gives a serviceable answer about how she is reaching out to everyone for their vote – Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Translation: I’m going to beat this mook so badly you won’t fucking believe it. Trump works in one last race-baiting riff, on the disaster that is our inner cities, where “you get shot walking to the store” and they have no education and no jobs. He closes with a declaration that we cannot take four more years of Obama, which is “what you get when you get her.” Perhaps if he spent a little less time watching Morning Joe and a little more time glancing at Obama’s resurgent approval ratings in the polls he might realize the folly of that argument beyond his narrow base.

Verdict

The snap polls afterward favored Clinton as in the prior debates, which makes sense given that little changed. As before she came prepared and kept her composure. Compared to the first two debates he came a little less unprepared and did better on the composure front for much of it, and on those two bases his supplicants in spin city pronounced it the best debate performance by a member of this or any other species since the dawn of time. But there were enough rays of real Trump peeking through the clouds of restraint to remind the undecided viewer of the yawning chasms of sanity and maturity in this race. And, of course, there’s his “I’ll have to get back to you” gambit on the matter of accepting the legitimacy of the election, which gobsmacked the pundits and ruled the airwaves post-debate. It was actually pretty good sport watching Trump surrogates torturing themselves trying to explain that one away.

Trump’s task was to turn in a debate performance that would help him with a polling deficit of a magnitude that no debate at this late stage can possibly overcome. Ergo, he failed. He does have one possible path remaining, though: a WikiLeaks photo of Clinton standing over Vince Foster’s body with a gun in her hand and a smile on her face. Kind of seems like a long shot.

A version of this post appears at the Nashville Scene.

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