Mass debating in public


I’m still having a PTSD episode after watching the entire 90 minutes (or was it 900 minutes?) of the badly misnamed “debate” between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, so you will have to forgive for the disjointed, Tweet-like nature of my response.

1. Biden stood upright for the whole hour and a half, didn’t shit his pants, and didn’t commit major gaffes or atrocities against the English language, hence he won the debate. This was always the problem with setting the bar so low for him. Whatever performance-enhancing substances he was stuffed with beforehand and however he was being couched and fed lines through his earpiece, he has managed to survive without being too riled – or derailed. The fact that, when cornered by Trump, the immoderator Chris Wallace always come to his rescue by quickly changing the topic also helped.

2. By speaking straight into the camera to the viewers and being able to string a comforting sentence of generalities and bromides Biden also arguably won tonight as the candidate for the exhausted: one who will make all the craziness stop and return life to normal. These were the brief flashes of the old uncle Joe, the non-threatening centrist.

3. Both Trump and Biden were barely coherent; Joe because he’s got a dementia and was visibly low-energy, Don because he’s not naturally a good debater and he seemed completely unprepared for the debate. Whether that was because he genuinely believed Biden will simply crumble after a few minutes of heat, or some other reason, Trump had few catchy one-liners or cohesive arguments. He rambled and went on tangents, when he should have been precise and to the point.

4. As such, he lost countless opportunities to rebut attacks or press points against Biden, including letting the “fine people on both sides” misquote go unchallenged, not explaining the ideological basis of “critical race theory” (no, contra Wallace, it’s not simply a “workplace sensitivity training”), not pointing out it took Joe and Kamala three months to condemn rioting and not pressing Biden to disavow Antifa, failing to mention his practical contributions for the black community, including the lowest unemployment and his recent $500 billion announcement, and countless others. It was painful to watch.

5. I had trouble following Joe because he was essentially spouting strings of meaningless motherhood statements; I had trouble following Don because his statements/answers lacked any coherence and consisted of strings of words, names and facts that would only be familiar to someone who’s a steady consumer of the conservative social media. I’m pretty sure an average, not very political person couldn’t make heads or tails of Trump’s political shorthand. The problem is that the base is already solidly behind him, but Trump hasn’t been able to speak to the independents and the swinging voters in a language they would understand and about issues they care about: jobs, recovery, law and order, manufacturing.

6. The ability of Biden to lie with a straight face – on anything from his son’s business dealings (Hunter didn’t get $3.5 million from a female Russian oligarch) to his environment policy (Green New Deal is not our policy) – is something to behold and marvel at.

7. I was particularly confounded by an almost complete absence of hard numbers and data. True, it can be too wonky and confusing for many people, but virtually every issue on the night was discussed in abstract generalities.

8. The Dem campaign will be torn about the prospect of future debates. On the one hand, they will be encouraged by the widely-shared assessment that Biden has won the first one; on the other hand, they might be reluctant to subject Biden to another few of those 90-minutes marathons while crossing their fingers their luck doesn’t eventually run out and their candidate doesn’t have an on-air breakdown. Certainly the groundwork has been laid tonight forĀ a refusal to have more debates: Trump is out of control and it would be undignified to repeat tonight’s shitshow.

9. The big take-aways for the Dems and their PR departments, the mainstream media: Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists and Trump refuses to say whether he will accept the result of the election. The big take-aways for the right: Biden refuses to rule out packing the Supreme Court and Biden is a weak, weaselly liar.

10. In some ways, considering that Biden would almost certainly be out of office within months and Trump might not serve the full term either (a victim, perhaps, of one cheeseburger too many), the real presidential debate will be the one between Pence and Harris.