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Good Takes on a Bad Debate
From Sheri Berman, Edward Luce, Yascha Mounk, Steven Pinker, Emily Yoffe and other members of the Persuasion team.
The most important line of Tuesday night's “debate” was one that Donald Trump did not utter: "I will agree to abide by the outcome of the election, whatever the results." Trump's refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power is a watershed in US history and poses an existential threat to the stability of the republic. The absence of that commitment outweighs any other takeaway from a night that was shrouded in ugliness.
If I had been watching this debate from the CCP headquarters in Beijing, I would have instructed all of China's television networks to run it in full. It was a deflating spectacle for America's reputation—and for the health of the democratic brand in general. I wish I could conclude by saying that things can only get better from here. But unfortunately that isn't true.
It’s hard to second-guess how Biden could have redeemed this depressing spectacle, but like a nervous soccer dad, I was silently coaching from the grandstand. In my fantasy, Biden would have prepared several “Have you no shame?” and “Tear down this wall!” moments, pausing as if to contain his anger and solemnly and theatrically demanding—ostensibly to Trump, but really to the world—that he denounce neo-Nazis, affirm the peaceful transfer of power, and assume responsibility for the welfare of the country.
But you go to war with the candidate you have, not the candidate you might wish to have, and Biden acquitted himself reasonably well under trying, nay, surreal circumstances.
The debate probably didn’t teach much to anybody who’s been following the sad circus that is American politics.
Trump was who we know he is: an aggressive bully, unwilling to play by the rules of the game, but willing to lie directly and unashamedly. Biden also confirmed what we know about him: He was generally uninspiring, and occasionally off-topic, but other qualities that we might not appreciate in “normal” times were a breath of fresh air in these turbulent ones. Comparatively calm and moderate, Biden was able to speak to the demands, anger and pain motivating many Democratic voters without promising the kind of radical policy responses—like court packing, the Green New Deal, or defunding the police—that would give ammunition to charges that he is a Trojan horse for "radical socialists."
But whatever one might think about Trump's and Biden's personalities, policies and records, none of that matters if our democratic process is endangered. Trump's emphatic insistence that the election will be marred by widespread fraud, that ballots have already been falsified, that his supporters will need to "observe" the voting process, and that the Supreme Court might need to weigh in on the election, threaten the basic foundations of democracy: the right of voters to choose their leaders and the peaceful, regularized transitions of power.
Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, whether you favor conservative or liberal policies—none of that matters if democracy does not survive. Trump's consistent attempts to delegitimize the upcoming election is a clear and direct attack on democracy and this, more than anything else, is what voters should keep at the forefront of their minds when they vote.
Trump's behavior last night was grotesque display of florid personality disorder. Please let this seal the end of the Trump presidency. Biden summed up our situation when he said to Trump: “You are the worst President America has ever had.”
I will, for a moment, act as if there was something normal about this debate to note that Biden over-performed expectations by being mostly sharp and prepared. More important, he was a decent human being.
And surely, we don’t need two more episodes of this.
The Times of London described last night's debate as “an ill-tempered and at times incomprehensible squabble between two angry septuagenarians who palpably loathe each other.” I tend to agree. You didn't have to watch it to know what happened. Trump was a bully: constant interruptions, badgering, and the tired pompous pout. Biden was beige: he never nailed Trump on his handling of the coronavirus, remained soft on Antifa's riots in Portland, and failed to distance himself from a caricature of the green new deal. It's unlikely that anyone would have been persuaded by any of it. And the question I couldn't help but ask: why is it that pretty much every instinctive reaction was national embarrassment? We have more people than ever tuning into an election that has greater stakes than any other in living memory, and we are spending the next morning talking about a boxing match.
The debate was a sad and sorry spectacle, and there is no doubt whose fault that was. But what’s ultimately most important is that Donald Trump blew what might have been his last best chance to catch up to Joe Biden.
To change the dynamics of the race, Trump needed to succeed in painting Biden as being senile or in cahoots with the radical left. He failed on both counts.
Biden's quip that "[the pandemic] is what it is because you are who you are" was probably the best one-liner of the night. But I am not convinced that undecided voters will be swayed by a debate performance.
So I'm left with two broader thoughts. First, with the exception of healthcare reform, the debate barely touched on specific policies. This tracks with a gradual but profound shift in partisan thinking: “Republican” and “Democrat” have become more like broad cultural identities than expressions of specific policy preferences. I don't think this is entirely unprecedented—think of the Southern Democrats or the cultural conservatism that elevated Barry Goldwater—but it really throws up a challenge if it becomes the primary driver of base mobilization in a two-party system.
Second, and this isn't surprising, there's a real difference in how Republicans and Democrats frame complex “systemic” issues like racism or climate change. When Trump says that “we're planting a billion trees” to address climate change, it's difficult not to see this as an acknowledgment that systemic thinking doesn't have a place in the GOP's current political imagination. My hunch is that this wouldn't necessarily have been the case for prior (pre-1994? pre-2008?) generations of Republicans.
For me, the biggest surprise was that Donald Trump didn't seem to hate (or give the audience a reason to hate) Joe Biden. This was a marked departure from his approach in 2016. Whether by strategy (sideline Biden to demonstrate his irrelevance) or by inclination (he simply lacked the personal animosity he held towards Hillary Clinton), the approach served him well for less bloodthirsty supporters.
Meanwhile, Biden escaped the trap of appearing too “sleepy.” But his greatest shortcoming was in failing to capitalize on diminished expectations by landing a few serious blows. His reply in defense of Beau should have been devastating, but it was swallowed up in the back-and-forth. His riposte to Trump’s taxes was lackluster—why not say that the president was taking advantage of tax laws as much as he was taking advantage of working people? And his reply on masks was another missed opportunity to explain clearly why he was happy to have smaller crowds if it meant fewer deaths. So, while Biden cleared the bar, it was far from great. And a second “not awful” performance may prove more damaging than the first.
An Anonymous Member of the Persuasion Board of Advisors:
Unfortunately, I have no original insights to add to the near-consensus among thinking people about this depressing spectacle.
This article represents the individual views of members of Persuasion’s Board of Advisors, not those of Persuasion.