Third Presidential Debate: Rapid Reaction

by Bob Shire

This debate was the most like, of those this cycle, the presidential debates of the past, but it still lacked the gravitas of prior events. Chris Wallace asserted significantly more control than Lester Holt in the first debate and fostered productive discussion early on some serious policy topics. The debate held together, largely because of Donald Trump's self-discipline for the first 26 minutes, before devolving into shouting matches at various, unfortunate points. The entire debate was not lost, but the candidates both meandered and pivoted to their talking points very quickly rather than focusing on the substantive policy issues at hand.

Mr. Trump focused most of his rants on Hillary Clinton and a corrupt establishment, which should be his core message. He was quite disciplined and stuck to policy points initially, but Mrs. Clinton successfully set him off by saying that he "choked" in his meeting with the Mexican President (a phrase Mr. Trump used to describe Marco Rubio in the primary). This was Mr. Trump's most composed debate, but he lost most of his composure after that point and still frequently interrupted; he also held Mrs. Clinton to a double standard, asserting it was his turn during one of the few times Mrs. Clinton interrupted him. His comment that she was a "nasty woman" will likely lose him votes. He also bucked his daughter and running mate (for the second debate in a row) to say he may not accept the election results, and he again raised the prospect of a rigged election. That, combined with his relative warmth toward Russia contrasting with his apparent disdain for longtime allies, has the potential to rock longstanding institutions. In some cases, these institutions should be examined, but throwing rhetorical bombs for political gain, and trashing the democratic bargain and international coalitions built over decades, is likely not helpful. Whether the voters will react negatively is an open question, but the news media will certainly react negatively.

Mrs. Clinton had a composed performance, which is usual for her, but we did not hear much new from her tonight. There were repeated and rehearsed talking points, anecdotal platitudes, and some very strong answers, but not the bevy of detailed policy positions that would have helped her draw a greater contrast with Mr. Trump, who discussed more policy in this debate than he has in the past. Mrs. Clinton did not answer Mr. Trump's charges on certain points, particularly the assertion that she was involved in creating violence at Trump rallies and that her campaign was involved in bringing women forward to tell stories about Mr. Trump's alleged assaults. Mrs. Clinton did not not offer anything stupendous or new, and Mr. Trump's composure in the first portion of the debate probably helped him. However, neither candidate changed anything substantially tonight.

Vote on November 8th (or before, where and when legal) and be sure to pay attention to your state and local races. There are many more people on the ballot than these two, and those folks deserve your research and attention.