In the first debate, Trump got beat as he tried to stand toe to toe with Hillary Clinton. Before the second debate, he announced his plan to take the gloves off and get loud and get personal. This too failed, as he was once again roundly beaten in the eyes of the American people. In the third debate, Trump attempted to affect a professional stance, but he couldn’t resist indulging his baser instincts. With phrases like “nasty woman” and “bad hombre,” and his refusal to state that he would accept the election results, this too was a poor showing.
Things were supposed to go differently for Trump. Chris Wallace, a Fox News employee, seemed like a favorable moderator on paper. But, while the questions prioritized right-wing concerns, Wallace was a consummate journalist who did his best not to let Trump pull Trump’s old tricks. Here are some of the topics a run-of-the-mill Republican could have hit out of the park but that Trump totally whiffed on.
From the very beginning of this election, Trump has been evasive on abortion. He has tried to label himself as pro-life without getting into policy and owning that newly adopted stance. Wallace had to ask three times if Trump would advocate for a repeal of Roe V. Wade if he became president. Initially, he fell back on state’s rights, not really answering the question. When an insistent Wallace pinned him down, Trump finally said, “[A repeal] is what will happen in my opinion.”
Wallace lobbed one right over the plate by bringing up the recent WikiLeaks exposure of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s emails. Clinton gave one of her weaker answers of the night, falling back on technicalities, and still Trump let it slip away. She sagely turned the conversation to Russian interference and Putin, and Trump responded, “I don’t know Putin. If we got along well that would be good.” Clinton came back at Trump, describing him as a puppet, and in classic Trump fashion he batted back like a school child, saying “You’re the puppet.” With that, Trump whiffed on his biggest opportunity of the night.
“I don’t know those people.”
Donald Trump and his campaign have entered into full denial mode. When given an option to show some level of contrition or explanation, his playbook has become “deny, deny, deny.” When Clinton called Trump out for critiquing the looks of his accusers, he attempted to deny it, and then she read his own quotes back to him. Then Trump tried to beg off further questions about presidential character. Wallace shut him down again, saying, “In this bucket of ‘fitness to be president,’ there’s been a lot of questions in the last 10 days.”
It was obvious that Matthews was appalled by Trump’s suggestion that the election could be rigged. “One of the prides of this country is a transition of power,” he said as he attempted to get Trump to walk back his potentially dangerous suggestion of election fraud. The next moment encapsulated the night. Instead of walking back his insane claims, he said, simply, “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Perhaps the most damning aspect of the debate was Wallace’s clear disdain for Trump’s demeanor. Wallace is a conservative journalist, but he is also a man of decorum. Wallace responded to Trump’s persistent interruptions with a curt, concise “Thank you, sir.” Trump’s bluster played well in the bravado of the GOP primary debates, but alongside two mild-mannered intellectuals, he looked brutish and desperate.
Finally, toward the end the debate, Trump asked if he could respond to one of Clinton’s answers, though he had gone first. Wallace replied, “No.” Trump spoke anyway. Same as it ever was.
Here’s hoping he’ll be interrupted on Nov. 8.