Donald Trump needed to win bigly, as he would put it, in Las Vegas. He didn’t, and his campaign is still a disaster. The major news line from the final presidential debate is Trump’s hint that he may not accept the election result – to which Clinton replied that he is ‘talking down democracy.’ But Trump’s promise to ‘keep you in suspense’ on that point is a silly sideshow. The very fact he is making a story over whether he will accept defeat suggests, ironically, that in his muddled psyche he has accepted defeat.
The last presidential TV debate was, overall, the best so far, which isn’t saying much. Trump didn’t go bananas, or at least not fully. There were plenty of mad Trumpy touches: ‘I didn’t even apologise to my wife,’ he said, denying that he had molested women; ‘We have some bad hombres here,’ he said, talking about immigration. ‘Nobody can believe how stupid our country is,’ he said, as he pointed out that Isis took over ‘vast swatches of land.’ (We think he meant swathes.)
There were some nasty exchanges. Clinton called Trump ‘Putin’s puppet’. ‘You’re the puppet,’ he snapped back. ‘Such a nasty woman,’ he said, when she attacked him over his tax affairs. ‘Podesta said some horrible things about you, and boy was he right,’ he added, referring to the Wikileaks emails.
But it wasn’t all Trumparama. The first twenty minutes of the debate were almost shockingly serious; a somewhat boring discussion of Supreme Court nominees, gun rights, and abortion. It was American politics as normal, and that felt weird. Clinton presented herself as the compromise candidate on these controversial issues, but anyone listening closely would have heard a woman who is well to the left of most Americans on LGBT rights, guns, and a woman’s right to choose. Clinton is trying to win over disaffected Republicans, but in her statements on these issues she offered many opportunities for her opponent to attack from the right and centre.
But her opponent wasn’t able to take them. Trump tried to concentrate and sound presidential in his responses, but he isn’t good at that. It took the moderator Chris Wallace – the star of the night, in most viewers’ eyes – to raise Clinton’s Wikileaks’s pledge to give open borders to Wall Street Banks when they were discussing immigration. Clinton’s response, that she was ‘talking about energy’ sounded evasive and deceitful. Again, Trump was unable to capitalise. He did attack her foreign policy record effectively, in parts, and she failed to cope with his attack on the Clinton Foundation for having taken money from Saudi Arabia. But he didn’t land any knockout punches, and the debate ended up being something of a stalemate, which suits Hillary just fine.
Trump has improved a lot since his awful first debate, and perhaps if they were doing these contests every week for two months, he would start trouncing her. But that was the last debate, time is running out, and Hillary’s triumph now looks inevitable.