The fun way to write about Wednesday night’s presidential debate would be to focus on the ridiculous number of hashtags and memes that were produced by caustic exchanges between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Trump’s constant attack that Clinton is a #NastyWoman will no doubt spawn pro-Clinton T-shirts and a spike in iTunes sales for a certain Janet Jackson song from 1986.
Clearly inspired by Fusion’s comedy talk show No, You Shut Up!, both candidates argued back and forth about who was and wasn’t a puppet of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, leading to more memes than even Kermit could handle. And, no doubt, at this very moment, some entrepreneurial progressive voter is painting #BadHombres on the side of a taco truck that will do great sales in front of Trump Tower in New York City.
Unfortunately, Wednesday night was a much more serious affair than some outlets and voters realize. On Wednesday night, Trump refused to say whether he would accept the results of the presidential election in November if he lost. That is serious, that is dangerous, and that is the only thing that matters from the third and final presidential debate.
Imagine if someone came in to apply for a job at Microsoft and halfway through the interview said, “I have every intention of using company property for my own personal use and stealing as much office equipment as I can fit into the back of my Prius.” The interview would be over. It really doesn’t matter what other credentials someone may have; if he or she is not willing to abide by even the simplest of rules associated with a position, that person is not getting that job. This third debate was the final step of Trump’s 18-month interview for the presidency, and he failed, dangerously.
In consecutive debates, Trump, the Republican nominee for president, has said that he will 1) jail his political opponents and 2) refuse to accept the result of what he considers to be a "rigged" election. These are not idle threats. He was not joking; nor was he using hyperbole to make some other, more subtle point.
Discussing the relative merits or the legality or even the possibility of each of these statements coming to fruition is cute for the purposes of late-night punditry, but it is entirely unnecessary, and suggests there may be some validity to his words. No presidential candidate, not even Al Gore, who was robbed in 2000, has refused to accept the results of a presidential election.
It’s not just tradition, it’s not just for the good of the country; a refusal to accept the will of the people is a violation of one's responsibility as a party candidate. Those are the words of a dictator. The Republican Party leadership attempted to spin Trump’s position, but anyone who watched the debate heard loud and clear that if Trump won’t follow the rules before he’s president, he definitely wouldn’t once in office if he got there.
Ironically, when it comes to politicians who seem to believe that they are above the law, there is no more prominent example than Hillary Clinton. During her time as secretary of state, she engaged in behavior through the Clinton Foundation and with her emails that, while certainly not illegal, would have gotten a regular person in trouble. Clinton is by no means an irredeemably corrupt politician, but she certainly doesn’t have as clean a record as perhaps Sen. Barack Obama did in 2008.
The importance of this is that while Clinton acquitted herself well during the debate—pointing out Trump’s penchant for blaming others, attacking women and failing to provide an inclusive vision for America—one has to wonder how she’d have fared against a better opponent. It is common for former Bernie Sanders supporters to bemoan how much better their candidate would have been doing against Trump (something I question because I think a stronger case could be made against Clinton).
A Marco Rubio, not saddled with sexual harassment charges and shady business dealings, might have been able to make a stronger argument that Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are double-dealers. John Kasich, as a former businessman, congressman and governor, might have been able to make a stronger argument that Hillary Clinton has fought for things, but hasn’t accomplished much, in 30 years of public service.
Of course, we won’t know how Clinton would have fared against a stronger debate opponent because the Republican Party decided to nominate a candidate who is a mixture of C. Montgomery Burns and Tony Soprano.
With less than three weeks before America chooses the next president, this debate was the last chance to size up the two candidates, and they differed bigly in their qualifications for the job. We all knew that before this debate, but Trump, by refusing even to acknowledge the rules of the process, made himself even less qualified than he was before.
One can only hope that the version of Clinton seen during these debates—cautious, focused and policy-centered—turns out to be the one who inhabits the White House. America has a choice between a Bad Hombre and a Nasty Woman, and fingers crossed or holding one’s nose, it looks as if voters have no choice but to go with the Nasty Woman.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.