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It's a Shame Clinton Got to Coast Through Debates

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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What a misfortune it is that Hillary Clinton was able to coast through three presidential debates without being pressed significantly on any of her weaknesses. 

At this point, I'm out of ways to express outrage at Donald Trump, who almost certainly will not become president. But let's get this next part out of the way, at least, in reaction to his performance at the third and final debate: It was unacceptable for a major-party candidate to say he refuses to accept in advance the results of the U.S. election and claim that his opponent should not have been "allowed" to run.  

Oh, Trump knew a few catchphrases. He knew to work in "e-mails" every once in a while. And he repeated like a schoolboy who read only one paragraph of the assigned reading that she was caught in a fib over the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the first debate (as he already said in the second debate, she had falsely denied calling it a "gold standard"). 

But mostly Trump proved incapable of laying a glove on her. Calling her a "nasty woman" doesn't count.

Take, for example, his part in the foreign-affairs segment in Wednesday night's debate that focused on Mosul and Aleppo. The Barack Obama administration's conduct in Iraq and Syria while Clinton was secretary of State is open to criticism, as are her stated plans for what she would do as president.  

But Trump could not formulate anything close to a critique. The complex situation of the current battle over Mosul was reduced to his fixation on how ISIS knew in advance about the operation by Iraqi forces and their allies, with the support of the U.S. -- as if armies could magically appear without, well, advancing toward the city.  

On Syria, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump about his bizarre statement at the last debate that Aleppo had already "fallen." The Republican nominee could not resist digging a deeper hole for himself, babbling about how things were really bad in the Syrian city, meaning (I guess?) that he must have been correct in saying it had fallen. 

In a normal election, the presidential debates push candidates to lay out their plans for what they would do if they took office, including those things they would rather not talk about. Clinton didn't have to do that in any detail. She's very good at rattling off her talking points, and she knows her stuff. But over three debates, her opponent rarely if ever challenged her to explain the substance at all. 

She had a beautiful answer prepared on Trump's "rigged" elections, and a terrific response ready for his accusation that she had done nothing but talk for 30 years. And she delivered them well. 

Trump displayed no ability at all to listen, analyze and respond, and certainly not to pounce on any weaknesses she displayed. Rather, as usual, he was easily tricked into wasting his time defending himself, rather than pivoting to where he wanted to go. 

Trump's failure to take democracy seriously enough to show up prepared to talk about the issues facing the nation and to confront the opposing candidate competently is not the worst insult he is guilty of in his campaign. But don't believe it doesn't matter: The nation suffers from the lack of real discussion between the people who would be its president.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net