Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton squared off for the final time in the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas on the campus of the University of Nevada. It was really the last chance for Donald Trump to recalibrate his standing with voters. He didn't achieve that. With his smirks, scowls and constant interjections, Trump more resembled Alec Baldwin's imitations of himself on the Saturday Night Live. Debate itself was ugly and acrimonious rather than a demonstration of presidential potential.
And so it began again, this time, less than three weeks before Election Day, in Las Vegas, Nevada, with Fox News Sunday host, Chris Wallace. The first question was designed to elicit the candidates' respective views on the filling of Supreme Court vacancies. Clinton began with a defense of future appointments on behalf of marriage equality, support for the Roe v Wade decision on abortion and reversing the Citizens United v the Federal Elections Commission that opened the floodgates on corporate campaign money. In turn, Donald Trump lashed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and rose to the defense of guns rights that are now "under absolute siege" from people like his opponent.
Wallace then honed in on the question of gun ownership, citing the Heller decision in a Washington, DC court that undergirded it. Clinton insisted there should be reasonable regulations such as comprehensive background checks and closing the gun show sales loophole. Chris Wallace then asked Trump about that Heller decision and the candidate chose to argue Clinton had clearly become extremely upset when she discussed it. In response, she insisted the right to bear arms is not in conflict with sensible gun regulation. Trump, opposing any limits on guns and "right to carry" laws, insisted his endorsement by the gun lobby was proof of his position.
Then it was a quick cut to abortion. Boom. Asked if Donald Trump supported the overturning of the Roe v Wade decision, Trump said any decisions on abortion belong to the fifty states rather than to federal government. Clinton, by contrast, said she firmly supported Planned Parenthood and the right of individual women to make those "difficult choices" over abortion and their bodies themselves. And about those late term, third trimester abortions? Her response was that the life and the health of the mother should be the key. Trump's response was that "ripping the baby the day before a birth" was what Clinton was supporting. Her retort to that was that the government has no business in arbitrating this, period.
Next it was the turn of immigration, the issue that originally made Trump the Republicans' contender for the presidency. Trump insisted, "we have no country if we have no border" and that she wants to open the borders to all those murderers, drugs and rapists. Amnesty is a fundamental no-no and "we need The Wall". Once the border was secured, we could sort out the rest of those illegals -- sheep from goats. Clinton pointed to the baleful prospect of tearing families apart -- illegal/undocumented immigrants and their US citizen children as she excoriated the inevitable deportations and the vast government force that would be required under the Trumpian plans. But, she said, she was obviously in favor of strong border security and a careful path to citizenship. Oh, and by the way, Trump had, himself, used undocumented workers on his construction projects and such actions were wrong. He insisted in return she wanted those nefarious "open borders".
By this point, the candidates and moderator were now at it, hammer and tongs, charge, countercharge. Wallace asked Hillary Clinton about her statement about open trade and open borders and she insisted that in the quote lifted from a document published by Wikileaks, she was speaking of open borders for the energy trade. And by the way, this kind of leakage was an example of egregious Russian interference in the election -- and Trump insisted, despite growing evidence and explicit statements by the intelligence community, that no one knows where the Wikileaks documents had come from.
And with that, we pivoted suddenly to Trump's admiration of Vladimir Putin and the problems with Russia's nuclear expansion. We quickly descended to whether or not Donald Trump was "Putin's puppet", that "our country has no idea" who did the hacking, and that Putin had outsmarted Clinton at every turn, especially since the Russians have taken over the Middle East while she was secretary of state. Clinton then drew attention to the direct presidential responsibility for launching nuclear missiles and his retort was that a whole clutch of retired generals have endorsed him and he then pivoted to the presumed way US allies have "ripped off" the country to take advantage of the US in defense costs.
Then it was off to the challenge of economic growth. Clinton argued for a major jobs program and efforts to help small business and new tech jobs, a higher minimum wage level, a program to make college attendance debt free and to provide free public university education for those in families earning under $125,000 per year, and fair taxes on the wealthy. For his part, Trump called her tax plan is "a disaster" and she will "double your taxes". Oh and then it was back to NAFTA's (the North American Free Trade Agreement) effect on "sucking out jobs" in place like Pennsylvania. "We are going to cut taxes" and businesses will start hiring people. And if we can't grow jobs we will abrogate NAFTA, he argued. Wait a minute, she said, her husband's administration brought the federal deficit into a surplus. Touché. Asked by Wallace if her plan was similar to President Obama efforts after the 2008-9 recession, she responded that Obama's efforts did not get all he wanted from Congress to respond to the financial crisis.
Meanwhile, moving onward, Wallace told Trump that even conservative economists say the candidate's plan will both create more debt and not yield the job growth he claims would occur. Trump's response was he had seen so many shuttered factories across the nation and that she had lied, yet again, about the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement and her reversal on her support for it. Her response was that Trump had actually, personally, shifted jobs from his own businesses to China, including importing and using Chinese-made steel in the construction of his hotel in Las Vegas. He interrupted yet again and accused her of a loss of $6 billion at the State Department. While she is talking, on the split screen we could see him mouthing "wrong" at what everything she said. Then he was off to blaming her for ISIS' creation and the mess in Syria, Iraq and in the rest of the region.
The debate sometimes shifted topics so fast you could get dizzy just listening and watching.
Then we moved into the X-rated portion of the program. He says she was responsible for the violence at Trump rallies and that all the stories about his sexual predation are simply her campaign's doing. So there! And it was all on tape that she had gotten all these people to lie. Clinton's response was that after his lewd, taped comments were revealed, the others could come forward. Still, he denied it all, saying they weren't attractive enough. Ah, the hectoring interjections from the Trumpian world again. She said the nation wanted a temperament on the part of its leadership that respects everyone. He added that it was her sleazy campaign that did it all and that she had lied, lied, lied, hundreds of time, over those emails that she destroyed after they had been called for in an investigation.
One could get very tired of those sotto voce - "wrong!" - comments from the left side of the screen, the "Hey, she called all those acts of violence", and the uncalled for interruption, "such a nasty woman", while she was speaking. Instant polling indicated these were not helping him at all with viewers.
Chris Wallace honed in on the question of whether or not Clinton had violated her pledge to keep the family foundation from tripping over any questions of conflict of interest in her time as secretary of state. "It's a criminal enterprise," Trump shouted, adding, "Give back the money to the Saudis and others" because of their donations to that family foundation in view if their domestic policies. Finally she hit back about her foundation's excellent ratings from foundation watch dogs, in comparison to the Trump Foundation's purchase of a two meter-tall portrait of The Donald. Hey, wait a minute, she replied, "we can't know anything about what he says because he pays no income taxes". He then said that if she didn't like the tax deductions he used she (by herself?) should have changed the law when she was a senator.
Then there was the moment of the evening. Asked if he would accept the result of the election if he lost, he said he would take a look at it at the time -- "I will keep you in suspense", he said. Moreover, there are millions of people registered to vote who shouldn't be allowed to vote -- and she shouldn't even be allowed to run because of what she did with those emails. Wallace interjected that the proud tradition in the US is that the loser concedes to the winner. She replied that Trump has even complained that he " wuz robbed" with his television show when he thought that he should have gotten Emmy awards for three years. With that, there is his infamous smirk again.
It is now on to Iraq, ISIS, and the ongoing Iraqi effort to retake Mosul from ISIS. Clinton said it would be wrong to reinsert US ground troops into Iraq. She added that she hoped the US military advisors' hard work would eventually lead to successful assaults on all remaining ISIS havens in Syria and Iraq. And that there would eventually be negotiations in Syria. Trump insisted there should have been a "surprise attack" on Mosul and that the ISIS leaders will be gone by the time the attack is over and that Iran will be the big winner. "They are outsmarting us big time."
Damn, it has become increasingly annoying to hear that voice emanating from the left side of the screen, going, "wrong, wrong!" and "Iran is taking over Iraq."
Wallace asks Trump about his confused views on Aleppo and he insisted Aleppo had fallen and the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is fighting ISIS and the fault of everything is all Hillary's anyway. And this mess -- her mess -- has caused the great migration of Syrians, a real Trojan horse of a danger. To Clinton, Wallace asked if her proposed no fly zone over Syria would provoke conflict with Russia and she replied that it would not be imposed in a day but would require negotiations and would therefore it will help us in the fight against ISIS.
Finally, we moved onto the US national debt. Outside experts, said Wallace, have argued that her plan would increase the national debt to over 80% of GDP and that his would push it beyond 100%. Trump denied it was true and said our negotiators are just sloppy "political hacks" who deal with those smarter Chinese. Trump said his plan would magically create growth and jobs, just like that. Wait a minute, she said, Trump has been criticizing the government since the late 1980s during Republican President Ronald Reagan's tenure, and he says yet again that he alone can fix things. By contrast, she replied, her plan invests in the middle class.
Wallace noted entitlements (mandated social welfare payments) now represent 60% of government spending. Would Trump make the grand deal on entitlements and taxes? The Trumpian answer was: repeal and replace Obamacare. The premiums are growing skyward. And Clinton said she would not cut benefits, but she would get entitlement spending under control.
Finally, in the last moments Wallace gave both candidates a minute to say why they should be president. In response, she said the country needs everyone to work together to grow the economy for everyone. The causes of children and families have been her life's work and she wants to continue that. And he will make America great again by rebuilding the military, attacking the disgrace of the inner cities, and respect for the police. That is how America will be great again.
Thank the gods these debates are finally over. While Chris Wallace tried hard to keep control over the process, it is long past time to return to a format that featured substantive, lengthy policy expositions and rebuttals that were the hallmark of those iconic Lincoln-Douglas debates, way back in 1858. In the back and forth of this debate, probably the most stunning -- and upsetting -- moment came when Trump outright refused to state he would accept the verdict of the electorate. Ultimately, by the end of this debate, the needle simply didn't move from where it had been at 8:59 pm, seconds before the debate began. As CNN's John King said after it was over, with less than three weeks to go before the nation's Election Day, "he [Trump] needs to bend steel" - and he didn't. Game, set, and -- now increasingly likely -- match to Hillary Clinton.