The last debate of the 2016 presidential campaign is over, thanks be to God.
Trump went into the debate desperately needing to change the trajectory of the race, not just for himself but for down-ballot Republicans who are being handicapped by their association with him. He failed — and added even more weight to their burden by his answer on refusing to affirm he would accept the electorate’s decision.
Trump made an even more critical error, however. He can’t win without adding substantial numbers of suburban, college-educated white women, who usually vote Republican, to his column. He trails Clinton by about a 20-point margin among such voters, who not only have been offended by his attitude toward and treatment of women, but have serious doubts about whether Trump is temperamentally suited to be United States Commander in Chief and Leader of the Free World. He needed to give those women a reason to trust him. He failed.
The media are rightly focusing on Trump’s refusal to say he’ll accept the election results, as every other losing candidate has done in our 240+-year history. But I don’t think that matters as much to educated, suburban white women as two other issues: foreign policy and the economy.
On foreign policy, Trump simply did not (would not? could not?) answer questions about whether he would send U.S. troops into Mosul once ISIS is driven out, nor did he explain what he would do about Syria. Instead, he slipped into his favorite mode of communication: a word salad heavily salted with blaming Obama and Hillary for withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. If you’re worried about whether the U.S. will make yet another military commitment to the quicksand of the Middle East, nothing Trump said clarified what he might do if he were President.
He made his foreign policy problem worse when the WikiLeaked emails became the topic. That Trump rejects the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia is behind the hacking and is trying to affect (i.e., “rig”) the U.S. presidential election again called his judgment into question. His response reminded women that so long as Putin says “nice” things about Trump, Trump seems fine with whatever Putin wants to do, from dismantling NATO to decimating Syria. Not a good trait in a President.
Nothing Trump said about his economic plans assuaged any doubts, either. Chris Wallace rightly pressed Trump on the evaluations by conservative economists that his tax cuts and spending plans would add trillions to the deficit and not create as many jobs as Clinton’s plan. Instead of trying to respond to the actual question, Trump started babbling about China and NAFTA.
So if I’m an educated, suburban white woman (which I am) who usually votes Republican (which I don’t), nothing Trump said about foreign military commitments, Russian cyberwarfare, or the economy could have reassured me in the least.
The closing statements put the contrast between the candidates starkly. Clinton, calm and cool in her brilliantly white, Nehru-collared pant suit, projecting peace and purity, emphasized she would try to make America work for everyone. Trump, sniffing and glowering in his shapeless navy, expensive man’s suit, projecting anger and irritation, returned to his vision of America as a hellhole that only he can make right.
And that, my friends, is likely to be the ball game.