At the third 2016 presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Wednesday night, a few things did not happen.
Hillary Clinton did not fall into a coma.
She did not swear or use a racial epithet, and she did not commit a violent crime.
Her command of policy detail and the way our system of government works did not fail her, and she did not thus reveal herself to be a robot (in which case she’d run the risk of short circuiting on the job) or a victim of sporadic dementia.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, didn’t transform into the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. He didn’t cop to a late-in-life diagnosis of attention deficit disorder that had impaired his ability to retain and process information over the course of his entire adult life, but which has now been medically remedied. His presentation yielded no heretofore uncovered evidence that Clinton murdered anyone or has a drug problem.
Only a debate development of comical magnitude could have reversed the public’s impressions of these candidates. No such development transpired, and no such development was ever likely to transpire.
This race is over. It has been for some time.
Before the debate began, a conventional wisdom curdled among political analysts who, after watching these candidates over the course of the year, imagined there was some critical insight to be gleaned from what was bound to be a familiar performance.
The assessment was that, with Clinton’s victory a foregone conclusion, Trump can be imagined out of the equation and the onus placed on Clinton to, in the words of ABC News’ Rick Klein, “appear downright presidential.”
“Could it be that there’s actually more pressure on Hillary Clinton at the final debate than on Donald Trump?” Klein asked. “Yes.”
Barring some unexpected Clinton campaign collapse, and with the outcome of the election increasingly clear, there is an argument to be made that she should be subjected to the kind of scrutiny befitting an elected president. But there is only one debate at a time, and there is only one election to be had. For that reason, it is crucial we not lose sight of the fact that, absent the black swan scenarios I traced above, the basic choice voters are confronted with is unchanged.
That’s why this race is over. Not in the sense that all votes are in and ballots counted, or that we know for sure who will win, but in the sense that there isn’t much left for a debate to reveal to us about these two extremely well-known candidates. Wednesday night proved as much.
Defying his vice presidential nominee, his campaign manager, and his own daughter, Trump refused to commit to accepting the result of the election on November 8. That is the final debate’s front-page headline. But as with just about every other exchange on Wednesday, and during both previous debates, this just confirmed what we already knew about Trump.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Trump demonstrated a near-complete lack of knowledge of the state of Second Amendment jurisprudence (or any critical aspect of governance). He promised to select “pro life” Supreme Court justices—an ideological fixity nearly all Republicans understand they can’t explicitly impose on their nominees, but that Trump is too dumb to know he’s not supposed to do. He objected to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s criticism of him as a kind of insubordination; he called undocumented immigrants “bad hombres”; he continued to deny his support for the Iraq war and for arming allies with nuclear weapons; and he called the New START arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia the “start up.”
This all transpired in the first 35-40 minutes of the debate, when a subdued Trump was supposedly at his strongest. After that, he denied mimicking a reporter with a disability (he did it at a televised rally). He dismissed multiple sexual assault allegations as the fabrications of fame-seeking liars, saying, “I didn’t even apologize to my wife, who’s sitting right here, because I didn’t do anything”; and when Clinton noted he avoided taxes, he called her “such a nasty woman.”
None of this is normal or acceptable, and it should not be subordinated to questions about whether Clinton (who made no such errors, and lost composure at no point) met any reporter’s subjective sense of what amounts to presidential behavior. If Gandhi had to share a stage with Trump for 90 minutes, American pundits would say he didn’t demonstrate enough tranquility to lead a non-violence movement. There is no longer any reason to treat combat between these two candidates as if it tells us anything meaningful about how Clinton will conduct herself in the presidency.