Americans can be forgiven for feeling both enormous relief and maybe a tinge of nostalgia over the end of presidential debate season.
In three forums, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – neither of them beloved figures – have shown the world who they are, and given voters ample information on which to make a decision.
Mr. Trump, at once entertaining and exasperating, demonstrated why the Republican Party’s grand experiment in nominating a political novice for president may not be repeated anytime soon.
Mrs. Clinton, for her part, showed future aspirants to the Oval Office that the fundamentals of running for president do matter, starting with intense preparation.
But as the 2016 race heads into the final sprint, no moment of the entire campaign matters more than Trump’s shocking refusal Wednesday night to accept, up front, the result of the Nov. 8 election.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said more than once. “I'll keep you in suspense. OK?”
In one go, Trump cast into doubt the very foundation of democracy, that an election results in a peaceful transfer of power.
Trump may know full well how he will respond to the result of the Nov. 8 vote, which appears increasingly tilted toward a Clinton victory. But his strongest supporters don’t, and as Trump ramps up talk at his rallies of a “rigged election” and how Clinton is planning to steal the election, he raises the specter of post-election unrest and a corrosive sense that a President Hillary Clinton would be illegitimate.
Some Trump surrogates, speaking after the debate, suggested that his unwillingness to accept the election result up front was just a Trumpian exercise of leverage – that the billionaire businessman never concedes anything until he has to. But even his running mate, Mike Pence, and daughter/adviser Ivanka Trump, have said Trump will concede if he loses.
Some of Trump’s highest-profile supporters portrayed his comments as a blunder, the moment he made them.
“He should have said he would accept the results of the election,” tweeted conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham. “There is no other option unless we're in a recount again.”
Talk of a recount was an allusion to 2000, when hanging chads and other questionable ballots in Florida threw the presidential race into overtime and, ultimately, the Supreme Court.
When the final verdict came in more than a month after Election Day, Democrat Al Gore conceded, paving the way for Republican George W. Bush to assume the presidency, on time and in orderly fashion.
Clinton 6 points ahead going into debate
The three presidential debates of 2016 have not been kind to Trump’s presidential prospects. He went into the first face-off, on Sept. 26, with momentum, polling nationally in a near-tie.
But his inability to resist baited traps set by Clinton proved to be his undoing. When she brought up Trump’s body-shaming comments of 20 years ago about a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, he lost his cool and spent most of the next week attacking her.
Trump’s campaign has never recovered. On the eve of Wednesday’s debate, the average of major polls showed Clinton ahead by more than six percentage points. More important, polling in individual states shows a formidable advantage for Clinton in the Electoral College.
Clinton’s best moment in Wednesday’s debate came when she coolly recounted a string of Trump comments about women who have accused him of grabbing and kissing them against their will.
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” Clinton said. “He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don't think there is a woman anywhere who doesn't know what that feels like.”
Clinton faced her own moments on defense in the debate. She was asked to explain a private comment in a speech to a Brazilian bank, revealed via Wikileaks, that her “dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders."
Clinton said that she was talking about energy, but the statement about “open borders” – at a time of intense debate about free trade and illegal immigration – is sure to dog her well into the future.
She also faced questions about her past defense of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, against women who have accused him of sexual assault.
But on both that question and the “open borders” comment, Trump let her off the hook. He pivoted first toward the old topic of Clinton’s private email server while serving as secretary of State, and then, on borders, pivoted toward discussion of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He said nice things about me,” Trump said. “He has no respect for her.”
That opened the way for one of Clinton’s most memorable lines – that President Putin has said nice things about Trump “because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
Trump’s only comeback was, “No puppet. No puppet. … You’re the puppet!” He did not elaborate.
He also refused to accept the conclusion of US intelligence services that Russians with high-level government connections had hacked into Democratic National Committee emails and those of other party committees and individuals. That only added to questions about his friendly posture toward Putin.
Trump began strong, focused on issues
Trump’s performance began strong, almost subdued, and showed that he had prepared to talk issues.
But when Clinton said that he had “choked” when he met with the president of Mexico, and didn’t mention his plan for a border wall, that seemed to get under his skin. The familiar Trump facial expressions and interruptions of past debates returned. Clinton did plenty of interrupting of her own, but she kept her expressions under control.
By the end, Trump was interjecting regularly – most memorably, leaning into his microphone and saying “such a nasty woman” as Clinton spoke about her plan to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund.
It was all a reminder that Trump is not a practiced political debater, and that questions about presidential temperament will follow him to Election Day.
The moments of levity – his reference to “bad hombres” as he spoke of illegal immigrants springs to mind – launched instant Twitter memes. Alec Baldwin is no doubt rehearsing his next “Saturday Night Live” impersonation of Trump.
But Trump’s refusal to state up front that he will accept the election result dwarfed all other issues in the debate, a gift to Clinton and a disservice to the Republican Party he claims to represent.