A final debate — and this can’t be over soon enough

October 21, 2016

What a concept: A debate that focused on issues.

Supreme Court. Immigration. …

Oh, wait. That was nice while it lasted.

In what amounted to final arguments on why they should be president, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debated Wednesday night in gambling mecca Las Vegas. The stakes for the candidates — and Americans — couldn’t be higher.

We suspect that much of the post-debate coverage will correctly focus on Trump’s dangerous refusal to say outright that he will accept the results of the election. But more than the previous two debates, there was a forceful attempt to keep the candidates focused on issues, thanks to Fox News moderator Chris Wallace.

National debt and entitlements? These have been given short shrift in this campaign and the issues were at least raised, if not always clearly answered. But then there were, of course, the spats — charges and counter charges. Trump clearly got under Clinton’s skin more than the previous debates — “such a nasty woman,” he said. And she returned the favor, emphasizing his sexist, belittling statements on women and declaring that this is the real Trump.

But, there was a welcome concession from Trump. While he did not concede that Russia was responsible for hacks and the Wikileak documents embarrassing to Clinton, he did say he would condemn any foreign interference in U.S. elections.

It was a debate of substantive questions on issues -- and equally substantive deflection by both candidates.

There was a question on whether her concern for the Clinton Foundation sparked pay to play practices while she was secretary of state, and Clinton swerved to the worthiness of the foundation’s work — and to Trump’s foundation, which he used to buy portraits of themselves and give contributions to a Florida attorney general contemplating whether to act on Trump University.

Trump shipped jobs to Mexico; despite his anti-immigration rhetoric, hired undocumented immigrants to help build his buildings; and bought Chinese steel and aluminum (which tied to a question on Chinese “dumping”). And he essentially said he wouldn’t do these things if Clinton had done her job as senator and secretary of state.

On the assessment by experts that the numbers don’t add up in his economic plan … he changed the subject to NATO. Later he said his plan would spur such economic growth that it would pay for itself. Clinton simply rejected the notion that her plan doesn’t similarly pay for itself with taxes on the wealthy.

But on the portion on fitness for office, we saw a truly disturbing Trump. Wallace, noting his statements about a “rigged” election, asked if Trump would accept the results of the election if he lost. He said, “I will look at it at that time” and later, “I will tell you at that time.”

Clinton correctly blasted his statement as “horrifying.” Trump then said, “She shouldn’t be allowed to run, just in that respect (the election) is rigged.”

And what we’re left with at the end of this final debate and with less than three weeks to go until the election, is what we’ve had from the beginning of this interminably bitter campaign: Two flawed candidates, but one with a much greater store of flaws — Trump. Two candidates with starkly different policy positions, but one with firmer grasp of facts and domestic and global realities — Clinton. One with slogans masquerading as foreign policy — Trump — one with actual experience and policies, Clinton.

On allegations of improper sexual conduct, Trump was simply unconvincing, denying the stories of the nine women who have stepped forward to say he has done what he bragged about in that 2005 video clip. At one point, he said the Clinton campaign was behind the charges. Clinton deflected a question about her husband’s sordid past. Which is not all that bothersome since he’s not running for president.

But, despite the spats, there were clear policy differences that can guide voters at the ballot box. On the Second Amendment, Clinton backs reasonable regulation such as comprehensive background checks. Trump does not.

On abortion, Trump says he will nominate justices who will, like him, be “pro life.” Clinton says she will defend Planned Parenthood from defunding and stand strong for Roe v. Wade.

On Syria, safe zones for Clinton, after negotiations. From Trump, no real prescriptions, just deploring Clinton’s alleged role in the Mideast morass — a mess that has existed generations.

This debate — as with the two previous and the entire campaign — had a scorched earth quality to it. It’s been one for the ages and one we hope never repeats itself in tone and tenor.

Nov. 8 can’t come too soon. But in this debate, despite the spats and deflections, Clinton again demonstrated a firmer grasp of the issues.