Trump con­firms ev­ery­one’s worst fears

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - EJ Dionne Colum­nist E.J. Dionne’s email ad­dress is ej­dionne@wash­ Twit­ter: @EJ­Dionne.

It was a two-track de­bate. At times, it was the set­ting for a de­tailed ar­gu­ment over se­ri­ous is­sues in which Hil­lary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump of­fered vot­ers a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward clash of pro­gres­sive and con­ser­va­tive per­spec­tives.

But this is 2016, and even­tu­ally the third and fi­nal de­bate on Wed­nes­day reached the fun­da­men­tal is­sue of the cam­paign: whether Trump is fit to be pres­i­dent. De­spite her sub­stan­tial lead in the polls, Clin­ton did not hang back, as many pre­dicted she would. In­stead, she pressed Trump sharply on the en­tire cat­a­logue of his short­com­ings, ac­cus­ing him of be­ing a “pup­pet” of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and de­nounc­ing his treat­ment of women, his mock­ing a dis­abled re­porter and his habit of say­ing that any con­test he loses is “rigged” against him.

And she clearly sig­naled one of the clos­ing themes of her cam­paign when she de­clared that Trump had shown “a pat­tern of di­vi­sive­ness, of a very dark and … dan­ger­ous vi­sion for our coun­try.” The elec­tion, she said, was about “what kind of coun­try are we go­ing to be.”

Trump drew from his own arse­nal of fa­vored at­tacks on Clin­ton, from the work of the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion to her use of a pri­vate email server and her role in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s for­eign pol­icy. “She’s been proven to be a liar,” Trump said.

Had the ex­changes come down to an ide­o­log­i­cal fight and sim­ple tit-for-tat, fire and coun­ter­fire, it might have con­sti­tuted a kind of vic­tory for Trump, given his polling deficit and his gaffes and lies in his ear­lier de­bate per­for­mances. But as the de­bate wore on, Trump once again left be­hind mo­ments that will only re­in­force the doubts many vot­ers al­ready have about him.

Re­peat­edly, he re­fused to dis­own Putin, and he once again praised him rel­a­tive to both Clin­ton and Pres­i­dent Obama. “She doesn’t like Putin be­cause Putin has out­smarted her at ev­ery step of the way,” he said.

He did him­self no good when he ac­cused the nine women who have said he groped and ac­costed them of be­ing liars, mo­ti­vated by a de­sire for fame.

And again and again, when Clin­ton re­peated things that Trump had ac­tu­ally said, he sim­ply de­nied say­ing them, pro­vid­ing fact-check­ers with an­other rich Trumpian trove.

From the start, Chris Wal­lace, the mod­er­a­tor in Las Ve­gas, tried to press Clin­ton and Trump on a se­ries of spe­cific is­sues -- what sort of jus­tices they would nom­i­nate, how they viewed the Con­sti­tu­tion, where they stood on abor­tion rights and gun con­trol. In each case, they stressed themes con­ge­nial to their core con­stituen­cies.

Clin­ton strongly en­dorsed Roe v. Wade, sharply at­tacked the Ci­ti­zens United de­ci­sion that un­der­cut cam­paign fi­nance re­stric­tions and stressed that she wanted jus­tices who would stand with or­di­nary ci­ti­zens against the wealthy and the pow­er­ful.

Since noth­ing in this cam­paign is ever des­tined to look like the Ox­ford Union or any other stately dis­cus­sion of pub­lic prob­lems, the first track was over­whelmed by the sec­ond. Trump’s ob­vi­ous pur­pose was to shake vot­ers away from Clin­ton. And if Clin­ton was try­ing to drive up turnout -- her fer­vor on abor­tion rights and gun con­trol no doubt helped her with women and lib­er­als -Trump may have been at­tempt­ing to drive it down, fig­ur­ing that in a smaller elec­torate, his com­mit­ted vot­ers would give him a bet­ter chance of pre­vail­ing.

Yet Trump suf­fered from what he al­ways suf­fers from: an in­abil­ity to con­trol his anger or stop him­self from in­ter­rupt­ing, which only re­in­forced un­de­cided vot­ers’ worst per­cep­tions of him.

The most im­por­tant mo­ment of the evening was Trump’s re­fusal to say that if he lost, he would ac­cept the out­come: “I will look at it at the time,” he said. “I will keep you in sus­pense.”

Never has a can­di­date for pres­i­dent chal­lenged the le­git­i­macy of the en­tire elec­toral en­ter­prise in which he was en­gaged. Clin­ton’s core claim is that Trump is a dan­ger­ous man who lacks re­spect for Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions and Amer­i­can democ­racy. On this cen­tral is­sue, Trump chose to prove Clin­ton right.

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