For about an hour on Wednesday night, Donald Trump managed to come across, for once, as a credible presidential candidate, willing to focus on issues and stay away from the nutty distractions that have made the presidential campaign of 2016 such a dispiriting political exercise.
But then he was asked if he would conform to the great American tradition of accepting the results of the election and support the winning candidate — and he blew it. “I will look at it at the time,” he told moderator Chris Wallace. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
His unwillingness to say whether he would accept the decision by voters served once again to remind Americans tuning in for the third and final debate of this topsy-turvy electoral season that Mr. Trump does not respect American political traditions — and actually seems to hold them in contempt. He compounded his failure by again raising the issue of rigged elections without providing anything in the way of evidence.
It’s frighteningly clear that he’s willing to tear down the house rather than concede the looming defeat he appears to face.
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For the first 60 minutes, the debate between Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump focused on the issues. It was no friendly exchange of ideas — far from it — but somehow the two candidates, under capable steering by Mr. Wallace, managed to avoid much of the nastiness that marred the first two meetings between the candidates.
There were actual discussions on ISIS, Putin, Medicare, Wikileaks, Social Security and other relevant topics.
Yet here’s the bottom line: Mr. Trump limped into the debate nearly 10 points behind Ms. Clinton and he needed to change the fundamental dynamic of the race. And for all his relative restraint this time around, he largely failed. Performance matters, but we weren’t fooled — substance matters more. Here, Ms. Clinton, again, showed her characteristic discipline and depth of thought.
Mr. Trump stuck to an economic plan that has been largely panned by economists across the ideological spectrum. He doubled down on his preposterous idea that he would build a wall between Mexico and the United States and that Mexico would pay for it. In one typically exaggerated boast, he said he would somehow “get” all the “drug lords” in the United States as soon as he becomes president — something a series of administrations have tried and failed to do for decades — without saying how.
It is hard to believe that anything that took place on the debate stage in Las Vegas turned any independent voters or others who were undecided toward Mr. Trump. Given that he is the most disliked presidential nominee in the history of polling, even a breakthrough moment at this late date might fail to make a difference. But, in any case, it never happened.
Ms. Clinton, it must be acknowledged, also punted on some questions, such as a Wikileaks disclosure that she once gave a speech favoring “open borders.” But she offered a clear and concise explanation of her views on gun control, the economy, immigration and abortion, while Mr. Trump was again big on promises and short on details.
Among those, perhaps the biggest whopper came toward the end, when Mr. Trump declared, “I will do more for African Americans and Latinos than she could do in 10 lifetimes.” Again, he failed to say exactly what he would do, or how, which has been typical of his campaign.
By this point, most Americans have seen and heard enough. It’s time to vote — for Ms. Clinton.