Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had one job in his third and final debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton: break out.
He needed to break out from the narrative that is fast enveloping his campaign — the way evening overtakes the late afternoon.
He needed a breakout performance showing himself to be disciplined and knowledgeable enough to be president.
And he needed to break through the lid that has settled atop his sizable base of strong supporters, containing that bloc at or below 40 percent in virtually all scientific polls done since the last debate on Oct. 9.
The great majority of Trump’s supporters have been steadfast through a series of campaign shocks that would have scuttled more conventional candidacies. That includes his videotaped talk about his sexual forays and the accusations of multiple women who say it was not all just talk.
But even as the Trump rank and file has held the line, by and large, its numbers in recent months have not grown. And the election is now less than 20 days away.
So on Wednesday night, Trump needed to speak to voters who are not yet with him. He needed to entice college-educated white men and women, in particular, who are traditionally Republican but not with Trump.
He needed to bring back more of the Republican officeholders and candidates and opinion leaders who have felt it necessary to distance themselves — often keeping his worst moments in heavy rotation in the media as they do so.
So did Trump have the kind of debate he needed? It would be easier to make the case that he pushed the prevailing narrative about this contest farther down its previous path.
Watching the debate in real time, and watching it in replay, the salient moments and the overall behavior of both candidates reinforced the dynamic of the first two debates. And that is exactly what Trump needed to reverse.
A shocking refusal
Inevitably, the coverage has been dominated by Trump’s stunning refusal to say he would honor the election results. Although he had said at an earlier debate that he would accept the voters’ decision, on Wednesday night he reversed himself: “I’ll look at it at the time.”
When a somewhat incredulous Chris Wallace of Fox News gave him a chance to alter his answer, Trump said: “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
That one remark may serve as an epitaph for his campaign. It thrilled many of his supporters, who have been embracing the idea that dirty tricks, fraudulent voting and biased media reporting have “rigged” the election against their man. His defenders quickly produced examples from the past of such skulduggery.
But Trump’s embrace of these attitudes was promptly disavowed by many Republican officials, including National Chairman Reince Priebus. Even Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, has committed to accept the results. So have members of Trump’s inner circle and family.
The “keep you in suspense” line was also denounced by an array of conservative voices. Longtime Fox contributor Charles Krauthammer called it “political suicide.”
Overstatement or not, that notion became a convenient linchpin for casual observers and professionals as well — whether they hung on every word all night or tuned in late for the highlights. Amplified after the fact by media attention, it is destined to overshadow much that was worthy in this debate.
Trump surely had his moments in the earlier going. He came on strong regarding Clinton’s handling of email security, the chaos in Iraq and Syria, the rise of Iran, the sluggish pace of economic growth and the ills of illegal immigration. He got across his essential message of change versus more of the same, often tagging Clinton with every failing of Washington in “the 30 years she’s been there.”
Post-debate polls showed him rated at least even with Clinton on handling the economy and immigration, two of the most important issues. But the same polls rated Clinton the “winner.”
How is that possible?
It might be in part because the campaign roles of the principals have begun to harden into permanent impression. And it could be because Trump himself once again stepped on his own substantive message with much of his behavior.
“Not a puppet”
The relative restraint that seemed to have been instilled for the second debate wore thin not long after this debate began. Defending herself against his attacks on U.S. foreign policy, Clinton said she preferred her position to being “a puppet for Putin,” a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump interrupted with “not a puppet, not a puppet, you’re the puppet,” and an outing that had begun on an even keel quickly lost its ballast.
Thereafter, Trump reverted to the rougher demeanor he showed in the first debate. Whether it was his exposure on the Russia connection or his annoyance at the personal dig, Trump was back to mugging for the camera and bickering with the moderator.
He often interrupted like an argumentative adolescent, made contradicting comments into his microphone (“Wrong!”) and generally treated Clinton like an unloved in-law who had overstayed her welcome. When she made a crack about his avoiding taxes he exclaimed: “Such a nasty woman.”
Clinton certainly fired as many taunts back as Trump landed blows. At one point she upbraided him for insulting the appearance of the women who accused him of unwanted groping and kissing. He interrupted to deny doing it, even though it was part of his televised speeches to huge rallies.
Clinton brought up his projects hiring undocumented construction workers and buying Chinese steel. He fired back: “Make me stop; pass laws to make me stop.”
And when Clinton bore in on Trump’s arguments about his other professional and political losses being “rigged,” she ended with his bitter Twitter complaint about The Apprentice being denied an Emmy. “I should’ve won that,” he shot back.
Shout out to Chris Wallace
Wallace became the first Fox News personality to moderate a presidential debate, and the latest newsperson to confront the difficulty of controlling these two candidates. Wallace’s task was even more challenging as he was performing solo. Dual moderators and panels have been more successful at containing the interruptions and cutting off the cross talk.
Wallace kicked off with the ultra-serious issue of the U.S. Supreme Court, its current vacancy and the prospect of two or three more in the next four years. Both candidates had prepared answers, Clinton backing current nominee Merrick Garland (whom the Senate has ignored) and Trump touting his list of 21 prospective appointees.
Wallace had even tried to get them to engage on the question of “original intent.” Clinton instead wanted to discuss abortion rights and the legalizing of same-sex marriage and the campaign finance decision in Citizens United. Trump came back with a vivid denunciation of late-term abortions implying they were often done in the ninth month.
The candidates may not have assayed the thornier questions he raised, but Wallace did as well as any solo moderator and held up a higher standard for discourse.