I am groping for the best way to sum up the third and final Trump-Clinton debate. Maybe I just did.
When the burghers of Boston and preachers of Providence read the pamphlets written under the pen name Publius, did they know they would become classics of American history, “The Federalist Papers”? Did the settlers who gathered at the Lincoln-Douglas debates know they would be cherished 150 years later as icons of honest and brilliant argument? Do the television viewers of this year’s presidential debates sense they’ve witnessed a bizarre spectacle that may one day be considered a significant low point in American political history?
I suspect most viewers do.
I also suspect most think it could get worse and worse in future elections if something doesn’t change. The dam that has retained some semblance of dignity, decorum and civility in campaigns has burst. Is it permanent or can it be fixed?
The third debate was no big deal apart from this broad context. The experts assure us it won’t affect the final vote very much. We already are used to new low after new low coming out of this yearlong campaign that never shut up. Except for a few Rip Van Winkles who haven’t made up their minds, this debate wasn’t about persuasion. It was more about punishment and endurance.
The final debate was not a meltdown as some expected. It may have been the tamest and most substantive, but that is saying very little. It could have been worse.
There was one screaming headline: Addressing his last huge TV audience before the election in the somber setting of a debate, Trump refused to commit to accepting the results of the November vote.
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump told the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News. “I will keep you in suspense.”
“That’s horrifying,” Clinton responded. It is also a first in our history.
Was Trump kidding? Did he accidentally confess that he thinks the whole election shtick is just a lark? Let’s hope the famous Trump attention span doesn’t retain this latest stunt till Election Day.
Trump again pushed his unsubstantiated and discredited claim the election is rigged. His primary evidence is that the press is biased against him. His secondary proof is that Clinton should not have been allowed to run because she is a criminal.
Trump also snarled, for the record, that Clinton is “such a nasty woman.”
Clinton played it cool throughout. She was composed and spoke more naturally than she often manages. She stuck to policy and substance whenever possible, but defended herself and tossed some grenades when needed. She didn’t draw on a new reservoir of charisma, but she certainly looked like a person who could go head-to-head with world leaders.
Trump provided no new offensive slurs, conspiracy theories or stage stalking moves tonight. The lies he repeated were old ones for the most part. He rejected the nuclear option.
Anyway, voters are pretty much done with being shocked.
Offensive rhetoric, biographical revelations, racist messaging, calls to violence and downright nutty behavior that would have been instant atrocities in any recent election — from dogcatcher to president — have become normal and now boring coming from Trump on the stump. Our outrage hormones have maxed out, but not the constant feeling of incredulity. Is this really happening?
It is dishonest to pretend both candidates share the blame for the ugliness of campaign and the debates. That was made clear again tonight.
Donald Trump is responsible for the civic vandalism that is his campaign. Yes, he had collaborators in the GOP and craven henchmen and henchwomen on his payroll. But Trump is the criminal mastermind. Some think he’ll make money off the escapade.
Now, you can support Trump and truly believe he’s America’s last, best hope and still acknowledge that his campaign was an irreverent, ill-mannered, angry rampage; it’s a rampage, however, you may think is justified and even necessary to radically attack a corrupt and rigged system.
You can hate Hillary Clinton more than Satan. You can believe every scandalous charge and rumor mustered in the past 25 years. You can believe with all your heart that she will be a terrible president. But you cannot credibly accuse her of waging a campaign anywhere near as mean and berserk as Trump’s.
Clinton’s campaign was absolutely normal and standard-issue for our times. Clinton did nothing to abet the political and civil crimes of Donald Trump and coarsen the race. How could she have possibly raised and ennobled the tenor of the campaign, as the scolds call for? Ignored the GOP nominee entirely? Skipped the debates? Retreated to a convent?
The Democrats could have nominated a more popular candidate with less baggage and question marks. That might have led to a slightly more upbeat campaign (and probably a Democratic landslide), but wouldn’t have altered Trump’s show one bit.
Just being in the arena with Trump has sullied Clinton by association. She is used to that, though. It isn’t fair.
So tonight’s debate is likely to be historic, for all the wrong reasons. It will be insignificant affecting this election for all the right reasons.
The debates haven’t felt like the stuff of regular, textbook history though. They seem more like a late season episode in an absurdist cable series produced by Andy Warhol and Roger Ailes, starring genuine, fake people: “Episode 10: The Donald, Unshackled.”
Let us hope what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and we won’t be subjected to more debates like this.
Talk of who won and who lost the final debate is silly at this late point.
We all know who lost — us.