The presidential debates circus rolled into Las Vegas, Nevada on Wednesday night (Thursday morning IST) for the final showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. After two rounds marked by a debatable quality of debate (first in New York and then in St Louis), it would be a stretch to imagine that the third round would be anything but business-as-usual (more on this point very shortly).
As several panelists on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360° noted before the debate, the first one is generally the most significant of the lot. It's also the one that grabs most attention — both in terms of the attention of undecided voters and from the perspective of TRPs. By the time the third debate takes place, as a panelist pointed out, it’s very hard to see a completely new dynamic taking form.
While this is largely true, all eyes were on Trump and whether he would do something drastic to change the trajectory of his campaign. But all of that would only be in play if indeed Trump himself felt a course correction was in order. And right off the bat, it did not seem either candidate was interested in any major course correction, eschewing an opening handshake before kickstarting things.
Ninety minutes later, we learned a few things. Probably not exactly what we hoped to learn though.
Right off the bat, however, it seemed as though this debate would not quite be business-as-usual.
FOX News' Chris Wallace began things with a question on where both Trump and Clinton would like to see the Supreme Court take the country. And for a while, it seemed as though the debate was going to be a proper one, tackling issues and discussing policy reform.
For a while.
While Clinton chose to answer the question asked of her, Trump began his reply with the following:
"Something happened recently where Justice (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg made some very inappropriate statements toward me and toward a tremendous number of people, many, many millions of people that I represent, and she was forced to apologise, and apologise she did. But these were statements that should never, ever have been made."
It seemed as though this debate was going to go the way of the two that preceded it, with Trump playing his victim card and eating out of Clinton's hand by falling for her provocations. But, he brought himself back on track and spoke clearly and most notably, comfortably about the issue. The topic moved to gun control and the Second Amendment and it seemed more and more as though the Republican candidate had done his homework.
He was assured and calm while opining on the role of judges, the US Constitution, gun control and even abortion. He seemed to be out there with a brief to stay calm and maintain his composure to put an end to all speculation about his temperament. For a moment, it didn't even matter that the content of his statements was questionable at best (accusing his opponent of wanting to"...take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day. And that's not acceptable" — something Clinton dismissed as 'scare rhetoric'), he was keeping his cool and it looked like we were in for a real fight.
Meanwhile on social media, there was other good news for the Trump camp. His running mate Mike Pence was tweeting and retweeting all through the event. It may be recalled that Pence had maintained an awkward Twitter silence throughout the second debate (after refusing to defend Trump in the vice-presidential debate), even as Clinton's running mate Tim Kaine was prolific with his publishing rate of 140-character missives. It appears Trump and Pence have set aside their issues (perceived or real) and are back in the game.
Somewhere on or around the half-hour mark however, things took a turn for the very familiar.
It was almost like a magic trick, wherein the magician had previously made the rabbit seemingly disappear, and finally produces the rabbit intact and unharmed. It's therefore apt to use the metaphor of the three-fold rules of magic to explain just what happened.
The Pledge: On the topic of immigration, Trump began to speak about his infamous wall in his own inimitable heavy-on-repetition style. "Now I want to build a wall. We need the wall. The border patrol, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), they all want the wall... Hillary Clinton wanted the wall. Hillary Clinton fought for the wall in 2006 or thereabouts. Now she can never get anything done so naturally the wall wasn't built. But Hillary Clinton wanted the wall." This was a perfect setup to draw Clinton into a trap.
One of the key issues that Trump has selected to score points over Clinton over the course of his campaign has been her supposedly soft stand on immigration. And the real estate mogul showed he's picking up new tricks by forcing her to explain herself. And it seemed that the blustery outsider of old had disappeared. And in his place stood a more astute politician. One who got a few polite laughs when he spoke of 'some bad hombres' in the US.
The Turn: In response, Clinton ducked and weaved through such diverse topics as energy, WikiLeaks, Russia, espionage, the idea that President Vladimir Putin has a hand in hacking American websites and his apparent intentions to influence the election. Knowing he had Clinton trapped, Trump allowed himself a wry smile and deadpanned, "That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders, okay? How did we get off to Putin?" His reply earned him a chuckle from Wallace and embarrassment writ clear across Clinton's face.
The Prestige: Just as a magic trick is incomplete until the rabbit reappears, the Trump of old had to be made to reappear. And reappear he did. In her effort to run away from the 'open borders' issue, she spoke of how Putin allegedly wants a puppet as US president. That should have been Trump's cue to laugh it off and bring the discussion back to the point. Instead he returned to his old ways and blurted, "No puppet, no puppet... You're the puppet... No, you're the puppet." The Trump we all know and love was back.
From that point on, decorum and poise took a battering and the ugly swiping, constant interruptions, bitterness and babbling returned.
"I don't know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good... Of course I condemn (Russian interference in the US election). Of course. I don't know Putin. I have no idea. This is not my best friend."
“We are being ripped off (by treaty allies under the protection of the US)... They have the bargain of the century”
"Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody. Nobody has more respect."
"Such a nasty woman!"
"You are the one that is unfit!"
And of course, a whole host of "Wrong!", "Wrong!", "Wrong!".
The nastiness quotient was also back in force and it transcended words. Both candidates were spotted rolling their eyes at each other (most notably, Clinton did it while Trump spoke of being endorsed by the ICE and Trump did it while Clinton spoke of her work as US Secretary of State).
For the most part, though, the debate ebbed and flowed much like a boxing match between two competitors in the same weight category. It was not the sort of mismatch flyweight versus heavyweight competition as which the first two debates could be categorised. Trump was shrewder, smarter and had Clinton on the ropes on at least two occasions. And it was during one of those moments that he chose not to step back and wind up for a haymaker, but instead to keep peppering the Democrat candidate with jabs.
On the topic of the conflict of interest created for her by the Clinton Foundation and its donors, Clinton was clearly caught off-guard and was trying her very best to wriggle free.
Which was when Trump went for one jab too many, talking about the tax breaks that certain wealthy personalities in the US (himself included) have enjoyed:
"We're entitled because of the laws that people like her passed to take massive amounts of depreciation and other charges, and we do it. And all of our donors, just about all of them, I know (Warren) Buffett took hundreds of millions of dollars, George Soros took hundreds of millions of dollars. Let me just explain... Most of her donors have done the same thing as I do... Hillary, what you should have done, you should have changed the law when you a United States senator... Because your donors and your special interests are doing the same thing as I do, except even more. So you should have changed the law, but you won't change the law because you take in so much money."
One would have imagined that while his tax returns are being audited and after somewhat arrogantly claiming in the second debate to have 'absolutely used' tax loopholes to pay less, Trump would have had the foresight to steer clear of the bravado this time around, on that count at least. By trying to blame Clinton and 99 other senators (which is essentially what it boils down to) for his own gaming of the system, Trump most definitely shot himself in the foot and by once again speaking of himself in the company of Soros and Buffett, widened the gulf between himself and the common man.
It all went downhill from there for Trump, with the coup de grâce coming in the form of what, in essence, amounted to undermining the electoral system of the US.
I will look at it (whether or not to respect the result of the election) at the time. I'm not looking at anything now. What I've seen, what I've seen is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt. And the pile-on is so amazing... And they have poisoned the minds of the voters."
As a businessman, Trump probably understands that it's always good to have an exit strategy or a way to cut losses when it comes to non-performing assets. And this stream of accusations of a 'rigged election' is nothing more than that. It is Trump's way to come out of a potential loss on Election Day and say, "I told you it was rigged. That's why I lost." Unfortunately, telling a country that you hope to govern that its system of electing the next leader is flawed borders on the ridiculous.
A debate that could have been a win for Trump or a draw at worst, turned into a defeat that looks far more thumping than it actually was. Why? Trump shot himself in both feet, that's why.
It's probably a relief to most that this is the last time for some time that Trump and Clinton will share a stage. They can snipe at each other from a distance now. Whether they will seek to address certain questions that have been raised about themselves remains to be seen.
But for the US and the world at large, only one question remains.
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Updated Date: Oct 25, 2016 10:54:50 IST