As soon as Wednesday’s final presidential debate ended, the analysis began, and the pundits’ conclusion was almost unanimous: Hillary Clinton may not have won many new voters, but Donald Trump failed to say anything that would save his flailing candidacy.
The Republican nominee was criticized for being unfocused and missing opportunities to attack the Democrat’s greatest weaknesses, such as her positions on foreign trade and Middle East policy, even as he received some praise for hewing to conventional conservative policies, getting in some clever jabs, and maintaining a modicum of poise.
But the biggest issue, several commentators said, may be that after his repeated and unfounded claims that the election will be rigged in Clinton’s favor, Trump refused to say that he will accept the results should he lose.
“I will look at it at the time,” he said.
In the Washington Post, conservative opinion writer Jennifer Rubin wrote that across 11 primary debates and three general election face-offs with Clinton, Trump has learned nothing and never improved his performance.
“He knows as little about domestic and foreign policy as he did the first time he stepped on a debate stage,” she wrote.
Rubin said that Trump has a standard approach that he has consistently applied: “interrupt and insult the opponent, complain about the moderator, provide no details, exhibit weird hand gestures, string together fragments of ideas in no particular order, praise Vladimir Putin, denigrate anyone and everyone else in public service except people who have said nice things about him, demonstrate the vocabulary of a fourth-grader, repeat lies debunked many times before and most of all deny, deny, deny your own vile rhetoric and behavior.”
On CNN, former top Obama advisor David Axelrod argued that Trump had suffered a decisive loss.
“He’s lost ground consistently since the first debate, and I have to tell you ... this was the worst of the three,” Axelrod said.
He also tweeted his view:
The candidate who already is eight points behind just suffere a devastating final debate. #DebateNight— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) October 20, 2016
Van Jones, a political analyst who also appeared on CNN, said any praise of Trump’s performance was based on lowered expectations.
“There’s a mythology that’s already starting to set in that he did super-well at the very beginning,” Jones said. He went on to address Trump’s habit of presenting falsehoods as facts, quoting a line from rapper LL Cool J: “ ‘He lies about the lies that he lies about.’ ”
CNN political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson agreed that Trump lost the debate, but she had criticism for Clinton, as well.
“I thought both of them were incredibly weak on jobs,” she said. “None of them really channeled the anger and the pain that I think a lot of people are feeling in terms of their own lives.”
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said on Twitter that there was no victor, no loser.
Nobody won: Hillary is more Obama; Trump is change agent but needs more knowledge - advisors could assist. More on The Factor Thursday -BO'R— Bill O'Reilly (@oreillyfactor) October 20, 2016
In the New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks had some pointed criticism of the Democratic nominee: “Mrs. Clinton reminded us why she is distrusted, with unconvincing answers about her ethics.”
Brooks said the entire tone of the candidates’ exchange was dispiriting.
“Neither was hopeful,” he wrote. “Neither seemed to speak to Americans with optimism. Neither seemed happy or excited at the prospect of being elected president.”
Chris Stirewalt, Fox News’ digital politics editor, told Megyn Kelly that the debate was inconclusive and unlikely to change any minds about the candidates.
But Trump also had firm defenders. Some conservative commentators found much to praise in his performance.
Bill Bennett, who was US Secretary of Education under President Reagan, told Fox News that it was Trump’s best performance in a debate, and the candidate demonstrated that he knows what he needs to know about foreign policy.
“I thought Trump did very well. He knows where Mosul is; he knows where Aleppo is, unlike Gary Johnson,” Bennett said, citing the Libertarian nominee, who admitted to no knowledge of the besieged Syrian city in a televised interview.
Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, also speaking on Fox News, said Trump had a good performance overall, but that the nominee “blew it up on a totally wrong answer on accepting the results.”
Until Trump again claimed that the election could be rigged in Clinton’s favor, Krauthammer said, he believed Trump was winning the debate. Krauthammer said Trump’s performance was “political suicide,” because the candidate failed to make an impression likely to halt his slide in the polls.
About a half-hour after the debate’s end, Trump took to Twitter to give his own assessment.
That was really exciting. Made all of my points. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2016