Thursday, October 20, 2016

After A Sedate Start, Donald Trump Takes The Bait

The GOP nominee returns to familiar, feisty ground against Democrat Hillary Clinton


By Gerald F. Seib
The Wall Street Journal
October 20, 2016

For a while Wednesday night, at this year’s final presidential debateDonald Trump was a more sedate and persuasive candidate, the one who calmly explains his positions while avoiding verbal fisticuffs.

Then his favorite topic—building a wall to stop illegal immigration across the southern border—came up, and Democrat Hillary Clinton said Mr. Trump met Mexico’s president and failed to repeat face-to-face his demand that Mexico pay for building that wall. “He choked,” she said.

At that point, the tenor of the evening changed. If Mrs. Clinton was baiting Mr. Trump, he took the bait. He considers himself a master counterpuncher, and he began punching back.

She kept punching, on all sorts of topics. A familiar, nasty cloud descended over the conversation, and a kind of downward spiral began, until Mr. Trump said Mrs. Clinton shouldn’t even have been allowed to run. Then, stunningly, he refused to say he would honor the results of the election. “What I’m saying, I will tell you at the time,” he said. “I will keep you in suspense.” That is unprecedented and will be the answer for which this debate will be remembered.

It’s also an answer that will leave other Republicans scrambling. They already had been distancing themselves from his earlier comments that voting would be “rigged.” Casting doubt on the validity of voting is an invitation to the party’s own supporters not to bother voting, other Republicans fear, and GOP candidates up and down the ballot hope to win in November in elections that are seen as fair and valid.

In sum, for a debate that had a refreshingly substantive start, the tense and nasty exchanges that led to that moment, and the ones that followed it, took the front seat. To that extent, it felt a bit like a repeat, and one that seemed unlikely to change the shape of the race—which, if so, is to the advantage of Mrs. Clinton, the clear leader heading into the night.

Mr. Trump accused Mrs. Clinton of wanting to open the nation’s borders and having criminally destroyed 33,000 emails from her private server. She, in turn, said he would be a Russian “puppet” who has encouraged the Kremlin to hack into the email systems of her supporters to influence the outcome of the election.

He accused her of running a “very sleazy campaign” that hired thugs to disrupt his campaign rallies. She said he has been discovered to be a predator to women and denied it by insulting women.

She said he is unqualified to have the codes to the country’s nuclear weapons. He said she was responsible for the birth of Islamic State. She stayed on the attack, on his tax returns, on his use of immigrant labor and onward, and smiled as he responded. He grew angry and resumed interrupting her answers.

To anyone who has been listening, there was little new of substance. To the extent there was substance, both nominees appeared to be framing their arguments designed more to lock down their supporters than to expand their universe.

Mr. Trump answered initial questions, about the Supreme Court, by underscoring his support for gun rights and his desire for judges who would stand for those rights. She said she would seek justices who uphold liberal priorities including gay rights, restrictions on gun ownership and limits on campaign finance.

Similarly, on abortion, they spoke to the base of their parties, she delivering a passionate argument for abortion rights and he asserting he would be happy with a Supreme Court decision that overturns the Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion rights, returning the issue to the states.

The two candidates entered the debate facing different but parallel strategic choices, reflecting both their relative standing in the polls and their potential paths through the remainder of the campaign.

For Mr. Trump, the question was whether to carry what amounts to his scorched-earth strategy—bash Mrs. Clinton as corrupt and dishonest and proclaim that the election and the political process is rigged—or pivot back to his populist economic message about lost jobs and bad trade deals. The latter approach might broaden out his appeal. But the former approach has ginned his base, and that along with dragging down Mrs. Clinton seem to be the primary goals of the Trump enterprise at this point.

Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, had to choose whether to duke it out with Mr. Trump on his terms, going on the attack on his personal flaws and answering his attacks in kind, or ignore that terrain and try to strike a more positive note in what was essentially her closing argument to voters.

The positive note had some appeal to Clinton advisers who would like to give wavering and uninspired voters reason to vote for her in the end. But the fear was that there also would be great danger in leaving Trump attacks unanswered. A whole series of Republican candidates tried that approach in the primary season and suffered as a result.

In the end, each tried a bit of both approaches available to them. It seems unlikely that the debate did little more than confirm the views of voters who already seem mostly locked in on their choices. Mr. Trump needed to shake up a race in which he is trailing, and Mrs. Clinton made clear she wasn’t going to sit back and allow him to find an opening to do that.


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