Last opportunity, lost opportunity?

The sun also rises …

Thanks to a long bout of insomnia, I’ve had plenty of time to mull over last night’s third and final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In retrospect, both candidates could claim to have won on their own strategic needs, but the divergence of those needs probably means that Hillary had the better night in the long run.

In the first 20 minutes, Trump managed to make the most pressing case for his presidency. He painted Hillary as an extreme liberal on the Supreme Court, the 2nd Amendment and on abortion. Trump may not have made the most articulate argument on the Supreme Court at first, but after warming up, he found his footing. Hillary argued that the Supreme Court should “represent us,” apparently confusing the judicial branch with the legislative branch, and argued for political interpretations that show exactly why the court has become the biggest issue in presidential politics. Supreme Court and appellate appointments have become a work-around to Congress, making the judiciary an arm of the executive — and one that long outlasts the occupants of the Oval Office.

After that, though, Trump didn’t make an argument that took him beyond his already-committed base. Perhaps the most obvious example of that was his insistence that the election system is rigged and that he wouldn’t commit to accepting the outcome until he sees what it is. (Jazz and Larry have other thoughts on this point, too.) Now, despite some of the media hysteria, that’s an intellectually defensible position, but Trump himself didn’t offer those defenses — such as the Al Gore challenge in 2000, or even the 2008 Senate recount right here in Minnesota. He just kept insisting that the system is rigged against him personally as an indisputable fact.

Clearly, this kind of response is what attracts millions of voters to Trump. However, in general elections, one has to find a broader coalition of voters than just the 48% of Republican primary voters that Trump won. While some of those might think that the economic system is tilted in favor of people like Hillary (and Trump, for that matter), they generally value the electoral system in the US and aren’t likely to warm up to someone who complains about it after winning a major-party nomination for the highest office in the land. It’s a turn-off, unless the argument is specific and coherent enough to be convincing.

The result was that Trump — after the first 30 minutes in which he dominated — had a good debate, in terms of campaigning to the Right.

Hillary, on the other hand, had difficulty finding a consistent voice. Thanks to Chris Wallace’s adept moderation, she had to argue within a ten-minute period that the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms can be subject to “reasonable” restrictions, but that the derived “right” to abortion has to be completely unencumbered by any regulations. She sputtered when Wallace contradicted her claim to be opposed to open borders by reading directly from one of her own speeches. Like so many other occasions in which she gets openly challenged, Hillary sounded shrill and strident at times, and evasive at others.

However, Hillary did accomplish two key things. First, she campaigned to the center rather than to the Left (after the Supreme Court and abortion discussions). Even on guns, Hillary tried to frame herself as a moderate, even while making an absurd claim that Heller was wrongly decided because of toddlers — a clear reference to a new Brady Campaign effort. Because she didn’t need to shore up her base, Hillary could work toward the center and position herself as the reasonable and rational choice, a task made a little easier with Trump’s answer on the election and a couple of his late personal insults.

Second, Hillary didn’t screw up. That was her real mission last night — not to make a fatal mistake. She’s leading in the polls and appears to be cruising to a significant win in three weeks, so she just had to make sure she didn’t derail her own train. Despite looking and sounding a bit lackluster, she managed to go toe-to-toe and not fall on her face.

Overall, this was Donald Trump’s best debate performance, and he won on points. But he didn’t score the knockout he needed. It seems unlikely that this performance will expand his electoral footprint more than it will just give his existing base reasons to cheer passionately for him. Last night looks like a lost opportunity in that regard.

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