Last night was a huge night for America. We finished the third of three presidential debates. We don’t have to watch these people ever again! Except that one will be president and they both could conceivably run again in four years. In any case, here were the big takeaways from last night’s debate.
1) Chris Wallace Is Awesome
Just a month ago I wrote, “Debate moderators are awful. Let’s get rid of them.” I argued that journalists weren’t up to the job of controlling what topics are covered, how questions are framed, and what assumptions are built into questions. I noted that they rarely have the chops to ask good policy questions or follow up on dumb policy answers. With politicians they favor, they don’t push back on outlandish claims. With those they abhor, they argue rather than facilitate discussions.
Well, if Chris Wallace can moderate all future debates, I retract my request to get rid of moderators. He had a difficult job, and he performed it extremely well.
He knew when to get the candidates back on track and when to let them tussle. He asked difficult but fair questions and gave them multiple opportunities to answer when they avoided them. He was firm but didn’t seem to get sore about their behavior, unlike many other moderators. I wish he could have asked questions for several more hours to get more topics in.
This was far and away the most substantive debate of the bunch. A friend I watched with made the point that Wallace set higher expectations for the candidates and allowed them to reach higher. He asked a few personal questions, such as about pay for play at the Clinton Foundation and allegations Trump has mistreated women. Most questions dealt with policy, including questions about debt, the Supreme Court, abortion, the right to keep and bear arms, immigration, and Obamacare. When they failed to answer, he asked them to do so. He forgot to do that with a question about Bill Clinton’s treatment of women and Hillary Clinton’s role in enabling that.
Some liberal commentators accused him of sexism when he’d interrupt Clinton, and some conservative commentators accused him of being too soft when he wouldn’t interrupt her. He also asked two- and three-part questions that were at times too complicated for candidates more eager to evade than answer.
But overall, the Fox News anchor showed how it’s done.
2) Trump Had a Good, Not Great Night
Trump had his second good debate in a row. But with his standing in the polls, he needed a miracle. He did not get that. Still, the important first half-hour was his best. He has done a good job of talking to the voters in the same way Hillary Clinton works wonders when talking to reporters. He hit his core issues and landed some punches on immigration and the general problem of Hillary’s empty promises after a lifetime of public service. His schtick of not answering questions in a wonky way didn’t go over as well with a thoughtful and calm moderator, but he was effective at pointing out when Clinton evaded questions.
For instance, asked about a speech transcript where she said she dreamed of open borders, she responded by saying the speech a Brazilian bank paid her to give was supposed to be secret and that it had been leaked thanks to Russian involvement. She said the real problem was that Trump wouldn’t condemn Putin enough. Asked to respond, Trump said, “That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders. How did we get on to Putin?”
3) Clinton Was Uneven, If It Matters
Trump had a strong opening. Clinton did not. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that she was the most effective pro-Trump speaker on stage. In response to the first question about what type of justices she would appoint and what type of understanding of the Constitution they’d have, she gave a very bizarre answer about how the court “needs to stand on the side of the American people, not on the side of the powerful corporations and the wealthy.” She mentioned nothing about the Constitution but said that the court should see its role as standing up for women and gay people.
Then she said that her justices would overturn Citizens United, which was a ruling about whether citizens have the right to criticize her! (NB: journalists did not take to their fainting couches upon hearing about her pledge against First Amendment rights.) She absolutely slaughtered an answer about gun rights, saying a recent Supreme Court decision was really about toddler access to guns. And when asked about her support for partial-birth abortion, she admitted she was all for the illegal and widely unpopular procedure, in which children are delivered to their neck and then have their skull collapsed in order to kill them.
Still, she recovered later and answered questions with unrelated remarks about how awful Trump is.
For people concerned about Hillary Clinton’s judgment in foreign policy, the most foreboding part of the night was when Wallace asked about her plan to impose a “no-fly zone” over Aleppo, Syria. Wallace noted that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says such a zone would mean going to war with Syria and Russia. Asked if she plans to go to war with Russia if they violate her no-fly zone, she refused to deny it.
With the increasing likelihood that this is our next president, Clinton’s answers gave Americans plenty to be concerned about, whether her radical support for abortion, her opposition to First Amendment court rulings, or her potential plans to go to war with Russia.
4) Our Media Are Awful
With Trump having the slight edge in last night’s debate, the media reverted to their standard general election posture of constant freakout. The issue they thought mattered the most out of a debate that hit important policy issues was Trump’s answer to a question about election-rigging.
Asked if he would “absolutely accept the result of this election,” Trump said, and you may want to sit down for this one: “I will look at it at the time.”
Political media decided this meant he was throwing the republic into chaos, and spent the next few hours feverishly writing up their “I hate Trump” pieces to reflect this.
Let’s leave aside the fact that in recent days, controversial undercover journalist James O’Keefe released videos showing Clinton campaign operatives talking approvingly of voter fraud and instigating violence to shut down political events. These haven’t been covered with the “flood the zone” approach you’d expect if the undercover journalist had targeted Trump, to understate wildly, but here’s a report from CNN and NPR.
The men featured in the video claim they’re stepping away from their duties now. One of the men, Robert Creamer, is married to Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic member of Congress from Illinois. He visited the White House more than 300 times during the Obama administration, including several dozen visits to the president himself.
And let’s leave aside the fact that Democrats were accused of rigging their own primary and that Democrats have been public about their fears that hackers or Russians would rig the election.
And let’s leave aside the fact that we just endured nearly a decade of progressive activists claiming Obama’s predecessor was “selected, not elected.” Actually, let’s linger there for just a moment to see Jonathan Chait’s perspective:
The entire point of Trump’s candidacy (it remains just a candidacy and not a campaign) is similar to Bernie Sanders’. They talk about how Washington is corrupt and that big monied interests are looking out for themselves at the expense of the little guy. They both had messages of taking on rigged systems. Heck, who hasn’t? And they’re frequently right.
Trump talked about the rigging of the FBI investigation against Hillary Clinton. He was right. There was no grand jury, they handed out immunity deals like candy and got nothing in return, and they destroyed evidence. But in general, Trump talking about rigged systems means it’s a day ending in y. It’s silly to act like the thing Trump has been saying all year is only now the worst thing in the history of the world.
Hillary Clinton began to have an effective point — I made a similar one on NPR on Monday — that he cries “rigged” when things don’t go his way. But as she listed the examples, she included that he’d complained when his TV show didn’t get an Emmy. He flashed a smile and said, “Should have gotten it,” prompting the audience to laugh. Despite this being on video (it’s at 1 hour, 35 minutes here) and it resulting in laughter, Amy Chozick and Michael Barbaro of The New York Times “reported” it this way in a piece delusionally headlined “Hillary Clinton, Mocking and Taunting in Debate, Turns the Tormentor“:
She noted that after a stretch without an Emmy for his reality TV show, Mr. Trump had claimed that the awards show was rigged against him — just as he now says about the election.
Mr. Trump did not disappoint. ‘Should have gotten it,’ he said bitterly.
It’s simply not true. Whether or not you think his joke was an effective deflection of her charge, you can’t deny it was a joke or that it was received as a joke by people outside of Hillary’s echo chamber.
Another New York Times reporter who claims to be covering Trump conflated two different things — Trump’s apology to his wife for his crass talk with Billy Bush and Trump saying his interactions with women who accused him of groping them didn’t happen and so he didn’t apologize to her — this way:
Heck, here’s another New York Times “reporter” showing his silliness:
Yes, that’s a clown question, Peters.
The “fact” “checkers” wasted no time fulfilling their role, as Ramesh Ponnuru ably demonstrated here:
NPR fact-checker says “very few” partial-birth abortions are performed. https://t.co/1KmLu1fAVf Hope so since they’re illegal.
Ramesh Ponnuru (@RameshPonnuru) October 20, 2016
There is no reason to think Trump’s performance was sufficiently good enough to change the dynamic of the race. And there is no reason to think Clinton’s performance would change things either. Journalists could simply report what happened. But post-debate spin does matter, and the same journalist supplicant types exposed in the WikiLeaks scandal were working overtime to create a fevered impression based on their own hysteria more than the actual debate.
The good news is that we’re nearing the end of the 2016 political season. The bad news is that we have a media completely unable to report on either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, veering from unhinged madness when covering him to over-the-top obsequiousness when covering her. The former is bad enough. The latter is horrifying.