Author’s note: I was obviously wrong here. And yet, not so much, as there were multiple last minute game-changers: the two Comey interventions and the cumulative effects of the WikiLeaks/Russia Podesta leaks, in addition to the overblown media coverage of all of the aforementioned. It was such last minute shenanigans I that warned below were Trump’s only chances to stay in within striking distance, and it was these things that swung the election to him in the final days.
With the race starting to pull away from Trump, he needed last night’s debate to be a change-changer or at least a game-alterer; it wasn’t, and it’s now over for The Donald unless something super-crazy breaks in the next few weeks.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse October 20, 2016
AMMAN — It’s over for The Donald.
Ladies and gentleman, the long national nightmare is almost over; not the other nightmares that existed before this election season that are alive and well, but, still, the current elephant in the room is being shooed out, and, barring a disaster or something incredible or crazy, Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump and take office as President on January 20th, 2017.
I know many people were saying this as of several weeks ago, as of the “#TrumpTakes” sex-groping scandal, even before that. I maintain that such pronunciamentos were premature and reflected wishful thinking—hardly entirely baseless, but wishful thinking nonetheless—that made the mistake of saying the door was shut, the window closed for Trump. But after this final debate, we can now safely say Clinton will be president unless something crazy—a major terrorist attack, an economic crash, incredibly high and consistent polling errors, some shocking WikiLeaks revelation (none have been shocking so far), etc.—happens in the next few weeks.
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and a (at least slightly surprisingly) fair-minded Chris Wallace each did their part at the debate last night to ensure that Trump’s path to victory—again, barring something shocking even by the standards of this election—is now blocked beyond any ability of Trump’s to break through.
Why do I say this? Given the current state of the race, in order to stay competitive in the final weeks, Trump needed one or more of the following to happen last night: he needed to really seriously damage Hillary, she needed to inflict serious damage upon herself, the moderator had to significantly damage Clinton, or he had to have done something himself to grow his shrinking tent of support.
None of this happened.
Let’s look at each and how the outcome Trump needed did not happen regarding of these hypotheticals.
Trump Did Not Hurt Clinton: Trump failed to land any big blows on Clinton. He got some great blows in during the second debate, but his attacks this time were so unfocused and rapid that his flurries either failed to really have an impact or missed entirely. And it’s not like he did not have ample opportunity to provide focused attacks on Clinton: he could have gone into detail on any number of issues, including some new ones that have just surfaced in recent reporting. He could have given a shout out to Pat Smith, the mother of a victim of the Benghazi attacks who blames Clinton for her son’s death, but he didn’t; it would have been smart for him to say to Clinton “Pat Smith is here, and her son, who died bravely in Benghazi, is dead because of you. What do you have to say to her, and to the victims of those attacks, who are dead because you failed them?” He actually didn’t even mention Benghazi at all during the debate. He mentioned Clinton’s e-mails only three times, twice just in passing, and didn’t really sustain his attack the other time. In fact, he spent more time talking about himself and defending himself that attacking Clinton, responding to every little needle and bait she laid out, diverting precious time away from being on offense and keeping the focus on himself rather than focusing on what would have been either tactically or strategically beneficial to his candidacy. He actually had ample chances to go into detail uninterrupted with deep, specific attacks, but his lack of preparation was so painfully obvious as he kept repeating himself with lists that were more often mere mentions than any built-up, organized, coherent attacks.
Clinton Did Not Hurt Herself: Clinton herself also performed extremely well. Was it an amazing performance, or full of things that would increase her support dramatically? Was she as bold as she could have been in her attacks? No, and that was not necessary. But her performance was a masterclass in demeanor, in self-control, in maintaining composure, in maintaining focus, in staying on offense, in how to pivot from explanation to attack, in how to deliver succinct yet substantive explanation, in how to get under an opponent’s skin and baiting him into behaving on her terms. She didn’t stumble once, she didn’t lose her cool once, she didn’t appear weak once, and she took every swing from him gracefully and came back with a solid response each time, as well. Clinton in no way can be said by any reasonable person to have damaged herself, then, with this performance.
Moderator Chris Wallace Did Not Hurt Clinton: When it comes to Chris Wallace, after having some time to process the debate more I have to say he was the best moderator of all moderators at the debates. He was fair, tried to keep both candidates in line, was quick to tell the audience to stay quiet, allowed both candidates to speak while also keeping them mostly on topic. He stayed away from the muck and the tawdry and from spending too much time on the scandals, and kept the debate focused on issues. He asked Clinton questions that could have damaged her but she was prepared for them and no damage was done. I’ve had my issues with Chris Wallace in the past, and he’s still one of the least fat kids at the Fox News fat camp, but last night he did an exemplary job. Rather than attacking either candidate, he let the candidates attack each other and performed his moderation role well. So, no way did Wallace do any damage to Clinton. It is very possible that Wallace could have been much harder on her, and been much more aggressive in asking her about her e-mail problems. But he wasn’t, just as he wasn’t terribly aggressive with Trump either. Fair and balanced, in the end, and I am not being sarcastic.
Trump Did Nothing or Next to Nothing to Increase His Support: OK, so, no we know that the debate did not do anything to bring Clinton down from her current, rising levels of support. So Trump’s final option to make himself competitive again was to increase his support. While Trump by far had his best tone and kept his composure the most throughout this debate relative to his other two performances, it is hard to imagine this alone leading to anything but perhaps the slightest of gains, if any. What he did do was just repeat the same policy quips he used in the other debates, nothing new that would grow his tent, especially not with his poor handling of the questions about his “lewd” talk and the swamp of sexual assault allegations in which he has found himself. He even failed to bring up his new policy ideas of congressional terms limits or a bold new student-debt plan, some of his best ways to possibly bring in undecideds. For the most part, Trump did not cover any new ground during this debate and it is extremely hard to envision people not in his camp moving into it as a result of said debate.
So, with Trump currently substantially behind Clinton both nationally and in most battleground states, he needed the debate—the last time substantially large numbers of Americans will see the two of them together or talking in any detail about their plans—to fundamentally change the race or at least its trajectory. That did not happen. And, yes, I noted how bad the second debate was, but if you think this last debate redeems out democracy, think again: that only 1 of the 3 presidential debates was serious, and that it has come this close, and that so much damage has been done, so many bad precedents set and normalized, so many dark doors opened for future demagogues, should worry us all.
But at least Trump won’t be entering the White House, barring a political miracle. The real battles now are over control of Congress and, after that, the fight over governance once Clinton takes office. But for now, the worst has been avoided.
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