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?
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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.”
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.
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.