Tonight’s winner? The status quo

On the night of the third and final presidential debate, The New York Times asked Times Opinion writers to give their take on the contest. As a contributing op-ed writer for the newspaper, AEI President Arthur Brooks shared his opinion of the night’s events: 

For the first time, for a few precious minutes, we had something like a normal debate. Donald J. Trump calmly proposed conventional conservative policies on taxes, social issues, and the Second Amendment. Similarly, Hillary Clinton articulated the standard Democratic critique of Republican tax plans and pitched other familiar proposals, such as comprehensive immigration reform, that her side has been proposing for years.

It was almost encouraging. But then, these candidates jerked us back to the sad reality of this election. Mrs. Clinton reminded us why she is distrusted, with unconvincing answers about her ethics. Almost unfathomably, Trump even refused to say he would concede the election if he loses.

As the evening progressed, concrete solutions mostly disappeared and the tone became far more biting and sarcastic. The candidates were openly contemptuous and disrespectful of each other. Neither was hopeful. Neither seemed to speak to Americans with optimism. Neither seemed happy or excited at the prospect of being elected president.

In other words, the debate sank back to the grim status quo.

The point of politics is persuasion. A campaign is supposed to bring people into the fold. Candidates always have to reassure the true believers, yes. But more than that, they must persuade people on the fence and maybe even soften up those who are hostile.

No one in history has ever insulted another person into persuasion. That’s axiomatic. You can insult someone into a fight, or into a lawsuit, or into a divorce. But not into agreement. The most fundamental problem with these two candidates – illustrated so clearly in tonight’s debate – is that they both exhibit an apparent lack of understanding of this axiom. It’s not just a question of suboptimal communications. It speaks to the leadership deficit that has led so many Americans to believe they have no good choice.

Is this election a temporary aberration, or are the politics of contempt permanently replacing the politics of persuasion? Whether 2016 becomes an unpleasant memory or the new normal for our nation will depend on us – on our reaction to this election and the kind of leaders we reward going forward.

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