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It was all going so well Wednesday night, with moderator Chris Wallace keeping the audience relatively quiet and the candidates focused on issues — the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, immigration and gun control.

But then it became a reality TV show gone bad, with the worst cliffhanger ever, when Donald Trump promised to keep the country “in suspense” when asked if he would accept the results of the Nov. 8 election.

“I will tell you at the time,” he said, when Wallace pressed the question, after Trump doubled-down on his disproved assertions that voting is “rigged,” his increasingly ominous rally warnings of rampant fraud in the “cities,” and his recruitment of freelance poll-watchers to do something about it.

Hillary Clinton called the debate comments “horrifying,” and anyone who respects our Constitution, who believes in the American experiment, as occasionally flawed as it may be, had to agree.

And that was before Trump, who said no one respects women more than he does, called his opponent a “nasty woman.”

Though I’ve never been a fan of reality shows, I can understand their appeal. Delving into the everyday of the famous and not so famous — knowing all are playing for the camera — provides a respite from our own lives, which may actually be more troubling and dramatic than what a viewer sees onscreen.

So it was appropriate that the debate was staged in Las Vegas, the setting for spectacular stage shows and prize fights. And just like at those fights, celebrities and surprise guests sat ringside, from Obama’s half-brother on the Trump side to billionaire Mark Cuban for Clinton, to challenge the size of candidate Trump’s wallet.

But the 2016 presidential race has proved to be more real than even our entertainment-hungry society craves. Sure, the ratings have been through the roof, but you may want to take a long shower afterward. Up to now, it’s playing out more like another popular series “American Horror Story,” this one labeled “Campaign 2016,” and Wednesday night brought a surprise no one wanted, though some Republican leaders may have dreaded it.

Some of them, from Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona to Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, immediately condemned Trump for dancing around whether making America great again means questioning the presidential election results.

The third and last presidential debate Wednesday night between Clinton and Trump was supposed to be about a list laid out by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, and for a while it was, with each candidate playing to his and her constituency. Certainly some things, like climate change, had hardly been mentioned and were not on Wednesday night. Criminal justice reform never got much air time, either, a particularly noteworthy omission in a previous debate not that far from Ferguson, Missouri, subject of a shooting, its violent aftermath and a scathing Justice Department report of police procedure. It, too, got scant mention this time.

For this final meeting just weeks before Election Day and with early voting already starting, there were headlines, charges and countercharges. While some tuned in for a picture of what a future Clinton or Trump administration would look like, no doubt others just wanted to grab some popcorn and enjoy. There were greatest hits, as well as tough questions on what has transpired since the last debate — Clinton’s leaked emails and the parade of women who have accused Trump of doing the things he bragged about on a video tape.

There’s a reason President Barack Obama’s popularity is rising as he fades into the distance, stylishly with first lady Michelle Obama at a state dinner for the Italian prime minister. Whatever one thought of Obama’s politics — and watching his Supreme Court nominee languish for a record number of weeks and months is proof of a partisan divide that remains — Americans could be proud of the family image presented to the world, the calm and measured presence he was sometimes criticized for.

For those who wanted to pivot to something a little more exciting, Clinton-Trump was a change, all right. Besides being an escape, reality shows also allow a bit of smug superiority, the ability to judge someone whose life is “really” a mess. But did anyone want this much mess?

There is talk of conspiracies, rigged elections and one candidate threatening to paralyze the country if he doesn’t get awarded the winning rose from the American people. Trump, upset when he didn’t get that Emmy, can do a lot more damage with the presidency in the balance.

It’s a preview of a new season that moves from outrageous to scary, an assault on the democratic process that is all too real. The prevailing mood seems to be exhaustion and depression — and no one is entertained.

Though we haven’t yet had Election 2016, many viewers just want this show to be cancelled.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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He wasn’t the flashiest debate moderator this cycle or the most aggressive. But Fox News’ Chris Wallace showed the rest of us how it’s done Wednesday night when he hosted the third and final debate of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. As Wallace served one direct question after another, he gave voters more insights by the end of the night than they began with and achieved the ultimate measure of success for any political journalist.

Wallace began the night approaching Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with unfailing politeness, referring to them as “Mr. Trump” and “Secretary Clinton” in his questions and thanking them for their answers when they provided them. But it would have been wrong for anyone to mistake Wallace’s civility for a lack of seriousness.

With his first series of questions, Wallace barreled directly into the heaviest policy topics of the entire campaign, several of which have gone unaddressed in the previous debates — the Supreme Court, guns, abortion, and immigration. Then, he plowed ahead to foreign policy, the federal budget and the national debt. Instead of editorializing or weighting his questions, Wallace kept them simple and straightforward. You voted this way, why? You said that, what did you mean? Why are you right and your opponent wrong?

When Trump refused once, twice, and three times to say whether or not he wants Roe v. Wade overturned, Wallace pushed him again, and again. “What I’m asking specifically …” Wallace said, following up, “But what I’m asking you, sir …”

When Trump talked over him, Wallace held his own, sternly. “I do get to ask some questions,” Wallace said. When Clinton tried to filibuster, he didn’t stand for that either: “Secretary Clinton, excuse me. Secretary Clinton.”

It’s never easy for journalists to moderate a debate between two opponents, but Wallace had the added challenge of moderating a debate between two people who seem to have little to no respect for each other. As Trump spoke over both Clinton and Wallace, Wallace stopped the action entirely to remind the candidates and the audience why they were all there. “Hold on, folks. This is going to end up getting out of control,” Wallace said. “Let’s try to keep it quiet, for the candidates and for the American people.” When the audience itself made more noise than it should, Wallace scolded the attendees, too. “Please be quiet, everybody.”

[Clinton, Trump Talk Around Senate in Supreme Court Debate]

The most policy-heavy portions of the evening gave Trump and Clinton their most successful moments of the debate. Trump had a full 30 minutes to telegraph to conservatives that he will be with them on abortion, immigration and appointing the right justices to the Supreme Court, while Clinton did the same for liberal partisans. After a nearly policy-free campaign cycle, the chance to hear each candidate dig into issues was a mini-vacation for voters from the ugliness of 2016, delivered by Wallace himself.

But Wallace also pushed both candidates on the two subjects neither wanted to address. For Trump, it was the groping allegations that have surfaced against him since the last debate. For Clinton, Wallace asked her both about her husband’s scandals and what she did to defend him from them, as well as the clouds surrounding the Clinton Foundation.

The most revealing moment of the night, and of any debate this cycle, came from one of Wallace’s signature direct questions when he asked Trump, point blank, “Do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely — sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?”

Trump’s answer: “I will look at it at the time.”

Instead of leaving that answer to stand on its own, Wallace chose to follow up with historical context to let the audience understand how unprecedented the moment was. “A tradition in this country — in fact, one of the prides of this country — is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner,” Wallace said. “Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”

Even then, Trump again declined to say he’d accept the election results, revealing more about himself in that moment than the two previous debates combined.

[Wednesday's Presidential Debate: A Reality TV Show Gone Bad]

Wallace finished the night with a civics lesson that he hoped both candidates could agree on. “We hope you will go vote,” Wallace said to the audience. “It is one of the honors and obligations of living in this great country.”

More people would probably take Wallace up on that if he was one of the candidates for president, instead.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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Shoot first, ask questions later.

That’s a great motto for a lawless lawman in an old Western movie.

Not so much for two House committee chairmen who called for the removal of State Department undersecretary Pat Kennedy earlier this week. Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Devin Nunes, R-Calif., were responding to a trove of FBI notes on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server that mentioned Kennedy had tried to persuade the FBI to not classify one of Clinton’s emails before it was publicly released.

One person interviewed by the FBI said Kennedy discussed a “quid pro quo” exchange, in which the email in question would remain unclassified and the FBI would get new overseas postings for agents. The FBI said no, and the positions overseas never materialized. While administration officials have said that the two issues were discussed in the same conversation, they have also denied that there was an offer of a trade-off.

Given the allegation, it would be reasonable for members of Congress to look into whether there was an attempt to improperly influence the FBI’s decision-making process. It is not reasonable for them to say, as they did, that Kennedy should be removed from his job, “pending” an investigation. Nor was it reasonable for Donald Trump to call for his ouster, which the Republican presidential nominee did through a spokesman.

Trump’s “lock her up” disease — a psychological affliction distorting an American candidate’s thinking to the point where he argues it’s OK to jail opponents or fire bureaucrats who haven’t been charged with any wrongdoing — has temporarily infected Capitol Hill.

Here’s what Chaffetz, chairman of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Nunes, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and the department’s inspector general, Steve Linick. “We find Undersecretary Kennedy’s actions extremely disturbing. Those who receive classified intelligence should not barter in it — that is reckless behavior with our nation’s secrets,” they wrote. “Someone who would try to get classification markings doctored should not continue serving in the State Department or retain access to classified information. Therefore, President Obama and Secretary Kerry should immediately remove Undersecretary Kennedy, pending a full investigation.”

They make it sound like Kennedy was giving classified information to someone who shouldn’t have it. That’s not true. And the person who used the words “quid pro quo” was a secondhand source, not the person who was engaged in the conversation.

[House Panels Lay Out Case That Clinton Perjured Herself]

No one — no one — in any official capacity who has any direct knowledge of the investigation has accused Kennedy of any wrongdoing, much less charged him with anything. Kennedy, a veteran of the Foreign Service who has worked under presidents of both parties, has defended his institution in ways that benefit Clinton and infuriate congressional Republicans who failed to destroy her with their serial Benghazi investigations. And therein lies the rub.

They’re not calling for Kennedy to be fired or suspended from his job because they expect he will be prosecuted and convicted for some crime. They’re doing it precisely because they can’t imagine that scenario playing out. He won’t be of use later. Now is the moment when Kennedy, who is appropriately described as a Clinton ally, has his greatest political currency. And make no mistake about how Chaffetz and Nunes are trying to expend it: in an nakedly partisan and decidedly unjust way.

In my reporting on the State Department, for a book I co-authored in 2014, on the Benghazi investigations and on other matters, I’ve come across Kennedy’s name a lot. He’s known for being inaccessible and transactional — not unusual for a high-ranking and long-serving bureaucrat — and intensely loyal to the State Department.

But is what he did either illegal or unethical? It’s hard to see how it would be illegal, even if Kennedy — who is savvy enough not to make this mistake — used the magic words of promising an exchange of an official act on his part for an official action by the FBI. In government, that’s known as “horse-trading” — or “logrolling” when it’s specific to Congress. That’s how laws are made, and it’s how bureaucracies do business.

[How Hillary Clinton’s Optics Problem Could Hurt Her and Her Party]

Without any evidence of an offer of a direct exchange — and the term “quid pro quo” appears to have been used in layman’s, rather than lawyer’s, terms — there’s no bribery. Ask any member of Congress who holds a fundraiser and rakes in money from industry lobbyists right before a big markup or floor vote on legislation affecting the industry or industries that donated to him. That’s not bribery in our legal system; it’s just a coincidence of interests. Curse the system, or change it, but don’t deny its existence.

A less politically motivated read of the situation is that Kennedy, acting in the interests of his department and his former boss, sensed an opportunity to limit what he saw as over-classification of Clinton’s emails. Whether it’s unethical for a public official to explicitly or implicitly trade favors with another public official is a reasonable question. And perhaps it merits investigation by the administration or Congress.

But the effort by Chaffetz and Nunes to evict Kennedy before gathering any facts is prima facie evidence that they don’t really care to find out what happened as much as they want to damage Clinton. American justice isn’t supposed to work that way. Maybe that will change if Trump wins.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.

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In 1980, there was only one debate between President Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Ronald Reagan. I hereby propose we pledge today to hold just one debate in 2020.

OK. I’d settle for two.

My take on this final debate is rather anticlimactic: Despite some fireworks, it changes nothing. Hillary Clinton won. But even a tie would have cemented her status as the (very) likely next president.

Maybe we put too much hope in these debates? In recent years, the hidden camera has replaced the podium as the catalyst for game-changing moments. Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe was probably much more damaging than what has infamously come to be known as the “Candy Crowley debate.” And Donald Trump’s disgraceful “Access Hollywood” comments might just be remembered more than anything else he has said in any of the debates.

Or maybe not.

We might have witnessed a throwback to a bygone era. When asked if he would accept the election results, Trump refused to commit, saying only that he would keep us “in suspense.” If this isn’t the defining moment of the election, it is most likely going to be a consequential moment that lingers in the minds of the voters who tuned in — it will be the last thing we recall from the debates.

Once again, it didn’t have to be this way. Compared with past debates, Trump appeared more subdued. The caveat here is that we are talking about Donald Trump — so the bar is necessarily low.

[Somebody Had to Win. This Time It Was Clinton]

Just as he needed to do, Trump repeatedly pointed out that Clinton hasn’t been able to change things during her thirty years of political involvement. In a country where 70 percent of Americans aren’t happy with the direction of the nation, highlighting Clinton’s status as a career politician was a crafty move. Ask yourself this: What would have happened had Trump been able to prosecute this case in a consistent and disciplined manner throughout this campaign?

We also got an answer to a question that has been plaguing me for some time now. If anyone was wondering why so many evangelicals were supporting Trump, despite his numerous flaws, the first few minutes of this third debate provided an obvious explanation.

I’m speaking, of course, about Clinton’s pledge to support activist Supreme Court justices who will advance liberal special interest policies, as well as her pro-abortion rights position. Granted, we might have intellectually comprehended that these issues were driving social conservative leaders to Trump’s corner, but witnessing this rather graphic discussion about partial-birth abortion really drove the point home.

On the negative side, Trump once again had to revisit and answer for things he has said and allegedly done to women. And, although Trump and Clinton took turns scoring points with zingers (they accused one another of being Putin’s “puppet”), I feel sure that Trump’s aggressive demeanor toward Clinton might have repulsed the very cohort of "gettable" voters Trump most needs to win over — college-educated Republican women. Had it not been for Trump’s refusal to say he would accept defeat, we might be more focused on his referring to Clinton as a “nasty woman.”

Oh yeah, and he also managed to attack Reagan on trade. But who’s counting?

The thing to know about debates is that nobody scores the 90 minutes and then adds up the points. One big soundbite overshadows lots of little points and logical arguments. And the big moment of this debate was Trump's refusal to say he would graciously concede.

But again, in terms of the election results, none of this matters. The only way this debate could have moved the needle would have been if Trump had scored an unequivocal knockout.

And since that didn’t happen, all that matters is that this debate season is (mercifully) over.

[For Trump, Getting Even Is More Important Than Getting Ahead]

Let’s just be honest. We are all tired and ready for this carnival ride to end. The first debate was greeted with excitement. By the third debate, most people I know would have much preferred watching the Cubs play. Or going to bed (perhaps until the election is over).

And it seems that this demoralized attitude transcends those of us who cover elections for a living. An uneasy American people stand with us in our apathetic corner. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness isn’t just a killer album by The Smashing Pumpkins — it could describe the emotional state of American voters at the end of a brutal election cycle.

It might just be that three debates are too many debates. Like the Godfather franchise, maybe we should’ve stopped at two.

Then again, sometimes the third time is — while not terrific — at least entertaining. In Rocky III, there’s a scene where Rocky Balboa and Thunder Lips (Hulk Hogan) hold an exhibition charity match that turns into a melee. At the end of the fight, the announcer can be heard saying, “See you all next year. Thank God.”

My next debate column will likely not come out for another four years.

Thank God.

Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.

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One of the most patriotic toasts, often used at social occasions in the military, is “To the President of the United States.” It is part of what binds us as a country and it is a hallmark of the social compact that supports the world’s most successful democracy.

Donald Trump — during the last presidential debate of his fast-imploding career — repudiated that proud tradition with the most shocking comment that he has uttered in his inflammatory campaign. Asked whether he would accept the results of an election that he seems destined to lose, Trump said, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.”

During the same answer Trump rediscovered his authoritarian side by dramatically announcing that his Democratic opponent “shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s crooked.” That’s right — because of charges about her homebrew email server that the FBI director said did not warrant prosecution — Trump would have banned Hillary Clinton from the ballot.

It is worth recalling that in 1920, Eugene Debs, as the Socialist candidate for president, received nearly 1 million votes while serving as Prisoner 9653 in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Debs’ conviction for opposing American entry into World War I was unjust. But back in 1920, no one suggested that he should be banned from the ballot in a democracy.

Little more than three weeks ago, on a debate stage at Hofstra University, the last realistic hope of a Trump presidency died. The polls today might have been different if the former reality-show host had actually rehearsed for the first debate; had he refrained from bragging about not paying taxes; had he resisted the urge to interrupt the first woman nominated for president; and had he not taken Hillary’s bait about his belittling a Miss Universe winner.

But that would have required a candidate with more maturity than the 70-year-old megalomaniac with a rapidly tarnishing brand.

Somewhere in Trump Tower, there must be a portrait of the pensive, statesmanlike Donald Trump with his chin resting on his right hand as he ponders global problems. But in the reverse of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” all the grace lies in the portrait while Trump the Candidate is a snarling mass of prejudice, misinformation and deliberate lies.

There was an interlude at the beginning of this debate, adroitly moderated by Chris Wallace, when that other Donald Trump was on display. His answers during the opening segment on the Supreme Court were conventional right-wing Republican boilerplate as he talked about “putting pro-life justices on the court” so that the states would decide whether abortion were legal.

The bilious billionaire even maintained his composure, for a while, when the topic turned to the hot-button issue of immigration. Even as Clinton egged Trump on — suggesting that “he choked” during his meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — the Republican nominee resisted the provocation. That is, until Clinton used a mention of Wikileaks to switch the subject to Vladimir Putin.

Trump initially held his own by making the apt point, “That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders. OK? How did we get to Putin?” But then, rather than scrambling back to the border issue, Trump insisted on talking about a fantasy world where “Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS.”

That gave Clinton an opportunity to use a line that she had obviously rehearsed about how Putin would “rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” Within seconds — in a moment that the late Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets might have cherished — Trump was reduced to shouting “No puppet. No puppet.”

Before long, as he harked back to a bizarre riff that he has employed whenever Putin was blamed for intruding on the American election, Trump once again denied the assessment of the US intelligence community that Russian hackers were responsible for the Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign documents. As Trump put it, in a dismissive rejection of his own government intelligence briefing, “Our country has no idea.”

But the moment when Trump finally lost his last ounce of self-control — the moment that he forgot every debate briefing that he had dutifully endured — came during the closing minutes of the Vegas Non-Valentine. Of all the trigger lines that Hillary Clinton had rehearsed, the one that finally turned Trump into a sputtering firecracker were the words “replenish the Social Security Trust Fund.”

As soon as she uttered that explosive phrase, Trump interrupted with an epithet that will be a centerpiece of all college gender studies courses for the next generation, “Such a nasty woman.”

One of Trump’s favorite words is “disaster” which he used 10 times in the debate to describe everything from trade deals to open borders to Aleppo to Obamacare to life in the inner city. But what is an unmentioned disaster is the presidential campaign of the man that a cheering Republican Party nominated in Cleveland.

Trump, judging from the polls and his performance in the final debate, is headed for a presidential defeat on par with Michael Dukakis’ loss to a triumphant George H.W. Bush in 1988. That was a year when the Democrats should have won back the White House after a sad-eyed, scandal-plagued end to the Ronald Reagan presidency. But they nominated the wrong candidate.

Michael Dukakis is an honorable man. Donald Trump is an affront to American democracy and the political party that nominated him. I hope that Republican Chairman Reince Priebus — who pronounced the GOP race over after May 3 Indiana primary and stifled dissent at the Cleveland convention — enjoyed the last debate of a drowning Trump candidacy.

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