Newscasters and commentators who analyze the candidates’ performance and the public’s reaction immediately after presidential debates typically endeavor to express a unique point of view that gives a special insight to what just occurred. Each pundit wants to shine with something different or surprising to build her-his recognition and brand.
Not after the third debate, though.
For the first five minutes, flipping between the various news programs, one topic and one topic alone under discussion: Donald Trump’s explicit refusal to recognize the results of the election in advance. Never before in the history of the United States has a major party candidate been unwilling to endorse the voting and Electoral College totals. It shocked many. Some Republican analysts said it disqualified him from consideration as our next president. Everyone understood that Trump was undermining a basic principle of American democracy, a two century compact between the people and government: the peaceful transfer of power from one regime to the next. Technically, Trump was probably committing sedition, which Merriam-Webster’s defines as “conduct consisting of speaking, writing, or acting against an established government or seeking to overthrow it by unlawful means; resistance to lawful authority; conduct tending to treason but without an overt act.”
Wallace gave Trump a chance to change his mind, but the Donald dug in, eschewing reality in favor of his fantasy world in which the only way he ever loses is when he is cheated.
Speaking of Wallace, he did a fine job, certainly the best of any moderator this election cycle. He kept the candidates to the issues and kept them talking on point. He made sure both sides got their say and kept order between the two candidates. Although he said he would not fact check, he did correct Trump a time or two. He kept the audience under control. The only disruption I heard was a loud rumble of laughter and sniggers when Trumpty-Dumpty said “Nobody has more respect for women than me.”
After the debate, Trump surrogates tried to compare what Trumpty-Dumpty said to Al Gore not conceding until a month after the 2000 election. To their credit, every reporter and pundit understood that refusing to agree to the results because the election could be rigged weeks before the voting is far different from Gore waiting until the results in Florida had been confirmed, or in the case of the 2000 election, mandated by the Supreme Court. Once the Supreme Court ruled, Gore wasted no time in endorsing the election returns, even though it meant he lost despite a significant edge in the popular voting. And Gore never said the election was rigged or threatened not to abide by the vote in the Electoral College.
By the time Trump made his seditious statement not once but twice, he had already lost the debate on merit. As in the first two debates, he interrupted, he fidgeted with his mic, he tried to shout Hillary down and he lost control and got angry. The longer the debate went, the more incoherent his remarks became and the louder his constant sniffing became. He resorted to insults, the worst of which was when he muttered, “Such a nasty woman.”
And Trump lied and lied and lied. He lied about the impact of illegal immigration. He lied about the relative strength of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal. He lied about what occurs in late-term abortion. He lied about the situation in Syria. He lied about the State Department losing $6 billion. He made unfounded accusations against his opponent. The fact-checkers found many of his statements false, while confirming that Hillary has been the most truthful candidate of this election cycle.
When the history of the 2016 election is written, I’m fairly certain historians will focus on the Trump phenomenon, his insults of other candidates, his dust-up with a Gold Star family, his infamous tape in which he admits to sexually assaulting women and his refusal to pledge to honor election results. Many will forget how masterful Hillary has been in these debates. Hillary showed why she has never lost a presidential debate in her life—tied a time or two, but never lost. Unlike the rambling Trumpty-Dumpty, Hillary spoke with extreme efficiency and precision. Her typical answer consisted of several parts: her stand, the facts to back the stand, why her opponent’s stand was inferior and a dig at Trump. Her formula: present the facts presidentially, then bait your opponent. Trump didn’t always take the bait, but even when he didn’t, you could see him fuming and fidgeting. Clinton, by contrast, laughed off Trump’s insults and accusations. She kept her poise while successfully goading her opponent to lose his. She also had her share of clever moments, my favorite of which was when she contrasted what she was doing in each of the past four decades to what Trump was doing; e.g., in the ‘70s she worked on behalf of poor children, while Trump was being sued for discrimination in rental practices.
But most of all, Hillary was cool and Americans like their presidents cool.
By cool, I mean her demeanor and temperament, not her sense of style or her social position in high school (which is what Maureen Dowd would mean). Americans tend to select as president the candidate who seems most comfortable with her-his body and in her-his surroundings. They like the candidate who stays in control, as long as that control comes easily and is not the product of a visible internal struggle. They like smiles over frowns, friendly over angry. Cool over hot.
Eisenhower was cooler than Stevenson in temperament and demeanor. Kennedy was cooler than Nixon. Reagan was cooler than Carter. Bush I was cooler than Dukakis, but no one was ever as cool as Bill Clinton. Certainly not Bob Dole. Bush II was cooler than both Gore and Kerry. Obama was cooler than McCain and Romney.
And the calm and studied Hillary is a lot cooler than the strident and fumbling Donald Trump.