For the first half-hour of Wednesday night’s presidential debate, viewers got to see some actual debating between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But by the end, the last of the debates sadly gave us more of what the first two did.
So says Wake Forest political communications professor Allan Louden, a national champion debate coach who has worked with politicians such as Elizabeth Dole. He began grading debates and speeches for us back in 2008.
In 2016, Louden has offered analysis and grades on the first and the second presidential debates.
Here, in his words, are what Louden thought about the final one:
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This past summer I saw a cartoon which seemed to capture the election carnival, two storefront campaign headquarters, each dominated by an oversized billboard, reading side-by-side, “I’m not him,” “I’m not her.” It would be easy to see Wednesday presidential debate as an incarnation of this simple but elegant account of the campaign.
It would not be incorrect. The third presidential debate was not just oppositional but in a real sense the actors needed each other for the play to unfold, “losers” made acceptable by the presence of the other.
The debate wasn’t solely an extension of prior debates or campaign narratives, but a “show” – a masquerading symbiosis, a coalition of conspiracies. Each defined themselves in relation to the other’s deficit. The personal attacks reached a crescendo often mean spirited and shallow.
With wonderment we witness an amped up version of the first debate, candidates limping to the end, bleeding and wounded, further cementing dogmas already shared by voters.
The defining moment of the debate – as deemed by today’s headlines – was when Trump declined to say, should he lose, he’d accept the election results. “I will keep you in suspense,” the Republican nominee teased, in a stay-tuned, the spotlight is mine way. This enabled Clinton to, in “disbelief.” find Trump’s answer “horrifying” – he is “talking down our democracy.” The media exhaled, knowing the drama would continue. Everyone’s purpose was served, assuming voters stay in their spectator role to the politicized Jerry Springer show.
It didn’t have to be this way, but was. Watching the first third of debate was I was thinking, “This actually resembles a presidential debate” but over the course of the evening, the roadshow of bickering cliché prevailed.
In a column commenting on the Hofstra debate I wrote “The lasting story of the debate was one of composure.” The general campaign frame of who is “unfit” to occupy the presidency is so durable that moderator Chris Wallace asked directly about the candidates “fitness to be president of the United States.” Trump’s inability to sustain restraint for 90 minutes hardened the verdict established in the first two debates. This debate, even bestowing full credit for Trump’s fruitful incursions, in the end, condense the debates, a collective a success for Clinton.
Trump successfully took the debate to Clinton in several instances, pressing in a way the revealed that the emperor’s clothes were threadbare, her explanations often accusations of “you too” and pivots. Beliefs about open borders converted to an electrical grid, trade agreement support morphed into Trump buying Chinese steel, and transparency of emails an unadmitted Russian conspiracy.
Hillary was called out strongly (“She shouldn’t be allowed to run. . . she’s guilty of a very, very serious crime”; “He [Putin] has no respect for her.”) but the messenger eventually struggled to generate a cogent sentence; often forcefully accusing, but just as often stepping on his own point drifting into auxiliary turf mid-sentence. “And I’ll tell you what, in particular in Chicago, people were hurt and people could have been killed in that riot. And that was now all on tape, started by her. I believe, Chris, that she got these people to step forward. If it wasn’t, they get their 10 minutes of fame.” Inciting violence and manufacturing accusers may share a conspiratorial flair, but sharing the same sentence?
The evening was won by Clinton as she, with Trump’s active cooperation, offered several riffs fortifying the “unfit for office” storyline. Two were memorable, bridging qualification and temperament.
CLINTON: He raised the 30 years of experience, so let me just talk briefly about that. You know, back in the 1970s, I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund. And I was taking on discrimination against African-American kids in schools. He was getting sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination in his apartment buildings.
In the 1980s, I was working to reform the schools in Arkansas. He was borrowing $14 million from his father to start his businesses. In the 1990s, I went to Beijing and I said women’s rights are human rights. He insulted a former Miss Universe . . . called her an eating machine.
TRUMP: Give me a break.
CLINTON: And on the day when I was in the Situation Room, monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting the “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Later in the debate Clinton cut to the core of patterned character.
CLINTON: You know, every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is, is rigged against him.
The FBI conducted a year-long investigation into my e-mails. They concluded there was no case; he said the FBI was rigged. He lost the Iowa caucus. He lost the Wisconsin primary. He said the Republican primary was rigged against him. Then Trump University gets sued for fraud and racketeering; he claims the court system and the federal judge is rigged against him. There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.
TRUMP: Should have gotten it. (LAUGHTER)
CLINTON: “This is -- this is a mindset. This is how Donald thinks. And it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling. . . let’s be clear about what he is saying and what that means. . . He is denigrating . . . our democracy.”
Clinton continued to paint Trump as impulsive, self-centered, and consistent. At various points she impugned – he “took money from other people and bought a six-foot portrait of Donald. I mean, who does that?” and “back in 1987, he took out a $100,000 ad in the New York Times, during the time when President Reagan was president, and basically said exactly what he just said now, that we were the laughingstock of the world. He was criticizing President Reagan. This is the way Donald thinks about himself, puts himself into, you know, the middle and says, ‘You know, I alone can fix it.’”
The debate often was little more than bickering, explanations offered in a superficial litany of accusations spewing media headlines, much like watching “Top 10 stories in 2016” on New Year’s Eve.
In what was nearly a policy discussion on Social Security, Clinton remarked “My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is . . . (Trump interrupting - “Such a nasty woman”) “by making sure that we have sufficient resources.” In a 2008 primary debate Obama was eviscerated for a humorously offered comment “”You’re likable enough.” How can women not viscerally respond to Trump?
Hillary pilled on and dug in, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. 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. So we now know what Donald thinks and what he says and how he acts toward women. That’s who Donald is.”
And there wasn’t much beyond denial and accusation to contravene. When asked about the women who have come forward, Trump “I believe her campaign did it, hired people to cause the violence ... her campaign did it. And I think it’s her campaign.” Clinton’s nonverbal daggers were palpable.
A large group of students watching the debate on campus were asked at the end of the debate “How you feel while watching the debate? Their responses are instructive to our collective antipathy with the season’s debates. They offered, “shook, hopeless, exasperated, despair, disheartened, ashamed, demoralized” among others. With some humor one wrote “worse than hombre.”
Last night’s debate augmented “the lasting story of the collective debates is one of composure.” Happening within the overall campaign parable of “unfit,” Clinton calculated, Trump frayed.
Grades: Clinton B, Trump C-