In a somewhat different context, but very relevant to Tuesday night’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, back at the beginning of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt had described a leader as the man in the arena who must draw upon his inner resources in deciding what to do, how to do it, and how to live with the consequences of those decisions. This presidential debate, sadly, was less about having two men in an arena than in watching an oral version of a mixed martial arts wrestling match.
I have been watching presidential debates since the 1960 debates between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. Sadly, this debate was clearly a less than edifying performance compared to the rest of history’s presidential debates, regardless of who is deemed the winner of this contest. (CNN instant polling gave a clear win to Joe Biden by a two-to-one margin.)
On my bookshelves at home is a volume of the full texts of the 1858 debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln over who should become a senator from Illinois. The individual debates took place before sometimes raucous, live audiences all across the state, and there were no moderators. They took hours and those debates were performances in which the two candidates actually allowed their respective opponents the chance to speak without interruption – and at length. They are still worth sampling for their rhetorical splendour and sense of humour, as well as the way they offer real insights into the character of the president that Abraham Lincoln would become in just two pivotal years.
Since 1960, in every year there has been a presidential debate, the candidates sometimes grimaced or rolled their eyes (as Al Gore did in 2000) or checked their wristwatch (as did George HW Bush in 1992) but there was largely some basic respect for the task at hand and their opponents. Sadly, this time around, the incumbent president failed badly on both scores, demonstrating, for all to see, his inner junior high school delinquent.
Evaluating this debate, it was “A hot mess inside a dumpster fire at a train wreck”, said an unvarnished Jake Tapper of CNN, in the very first minutes after the debate ended. Tapper was being kind. Dana Bash’s on-air comment was simpler and more direct, “It was a shit-show.” Whoa. And it was shown to governments and ordinary people all around the world, live, uninterrupted, unseemly, and unedited.
In an evening of nearly continuous, shameless low moments, one of the lowest was when the president — this is the country’s sitting president, mind you — attacked Joe Biden’s living son, as a drug addict. (The former vice president notably refused to chastise the president for the lives and actions of his children and Biden said he was proud of his son, Hunter, for surmounting his addiction.) Then the president refused to denounce white supremacist organisations such as the “Proud Boys”, telling them to “stand back and stand by”, but somebody must do something about Antifa, presumably via some kind of “action” when Election Day dawns. (Such organisations have been lighting up social media ever since with their delight at the president’s endorsement of their ugly behaviour and views.) Ugly, ugly, ugly!
Following is our reaction to the debate, as we watched.
Immediately after the opening applause, the two men were at it in the arena at the Case Western Reserve-Cleveland Clinic sponsored debate. The Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett by the president following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the ostensible first topic introduced by moderator Chris Wallace, but there was an almost immediate segue to healthcare and the president’s still-invisible healthcare plan. “He has no plan”, was the former vice president’s riposte to the president’s, “We got rid of Obamacare, because it is no good”. The constant interjections, smirking, and heckling from Donald Trump eventually provoked an “Oh, shut up!” from Joe Biden.
Then it was off to Covid-19 and Joe Biden called out the president as again having no plan, quoting Trump in his taped conversations with reporter Bob Woodward about the president’s fear of panicking Americans over the pandemic. And then the president was off to his usual route of it’s all China’s fault. And it was all Biden’s fault that there was a swine flu epidemic. (Then we get to the comparative numbers of 200,000-plus deaths from Covid-19 versus 14,000 during the entire swine flu epidemic.) This back and forth came just before the president disagreed with the words from his own public health advisors as cited by the moderator. And then we were off to the highly contested question of who is the smarter, better educated man. By this point, the president’s strategy had become transcendently clear: It was to interrupt, interject, talk over his opponent, and then to bob and weave away and around any uncomfortable questions.
Masks! “Hey, I have a mask and I wear it when I think I need it,” said the president as he lambasted Democratic governors and mocked the former vice president’s campaign strategy. And then were quickly off to the president claiming for some reason that he had brought back Big Ten Conference (university) football and that the people of Ohio love him for this brave act.
Ah ha! We were back to actual questions, sort of. Chris Wallace asked about those very problematic $750 income tax payments by Donald Trump in 2016 and 2017, as revealed by The New York Times the other day. But then we quickly return to the back and forth about who is a worse official. (Bear in mind that Donald Trump has been in office as president for nearly four years.) That unruly exchange was officially what could be called a smooth segue in the debate rule book.
Respective economic plans are next on the menu at this dog’s breakfast buffet. Biden says, “Look at what he has actually done” and Trump responds with charges about Hunter Biden and the supposed millions and millions of shady payments he has taken from various foreign sources. Biden retorts that this debate should actually be about “you, the American family”. Someone needed to have given Chris Wallace a bell (and maybe a charged Taser and a bullwhip) and the courage to ring it vigorously.
Then it was on to the question of trust on the issue of race and equity. Wallace teed up this segment with a reference to the president’s tragically ill-advised response to that haters march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Biden then called out the president’s responses to assist African Americans the “dog whistles to his supporters” that they are — and have been throughout this campaign. Then it was time to heckle the former vice president about his supposedly uneasy radical leftist supporters and Biden’s failure to escape from their clutches over the need for more “law and order”.
(As an aside, does anybody else besides me, at just before four in the morning in South Africa, notice that the president’s grammar has now decisively obliterated any rules about the difference between adverbs and adjectives?)
Then we entered a debate about “critical race theory”, what the president calls a “terrible, bad idea”, presumably for teaching American history warts and all. In response, the former vice president recalled the need to bring the country together, which led to something like a shouting match over who loves “law and order” more. Or, as the president charged of Biden, “if you became president, the suburbs would be gone”. Now that is a dog whistle. Mastiffs, greyhounds, cockerdoodles, and every breed in between are now running hard to come home.
Reimagining policing is ostensibly the next topic, but the president wants to fight about who would be nastier towards the protesting crowds in Portland. Why haven’t the governors called in the National Guard in states with protests and demonstrations, Trump demands. But then, as to whether Trump would call out the white supremacists, the president insisted that everything is Antifa’s fault. “Antifa is a dangerous idea and they will overthrow you”, the president tossed at his opponent.
We then moved on to why voters should support one candidate over the other. To this, the president answered that “everything was going great”; “we’ve rebuilt our military”; and “most important, we’ll have 300 federal judges and, hopefully, three Supreme Court justices”. Biden responded that under the Trump presidency, the country has become weaker and more divided. And then, sadly, the debate is back to some wrangling over Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and some snarky remarks by you-know-who about Joe Biden’s other son, Beau’s military record.
Should we talk about climate change? Per the president, following his usual rhetoric, the Paris Climate Accord was a disaster and that the president is in favour of crystal clear water and pure air. About those forest fires afflicting the western states? The president responded that the country needs better control over dead trees and leaves. And about climate change, the president is asked, point blank, if he believes in the science of it and the president warbles on about the need for forest management and the need for forest cities.
I am lost. We are all lost.
The president then insisted the country’s cars are now too expensive and that what is being done in California over emissions control and electric vehicles “is just crazy”. (By the way, as a modest fact check from this quarter, the majority of western forests are federally controlled lands, not state or private lands.)
For Biden, he said he would move forward with plans for a shift to a national electric automobile fleet, a national programme of electrical charging stations on highways, and the replacement of the federal vehicle fleet with electrically powered ones. And that America would rejoin the Paris Accord. In response, the president rants on that the Democrats will get rid of cows as part of its outrageous climate change control plan. In response to the charge Democratic plans on climate change will cost vast sums of cash, Biden responded that his plans would generate demand for new materials, new construction, and new and better paying jobs. As a weak retort, we have returned to bickering over whether the Biden climate plan is equivalent to the left’s “Green New Deal”. Biden insists it is not.
(The heads of the media’s fact checkers are going to explode after this debate, this viewer has mumbled to himself by now.)
Oh good, we have now reached the vexed question of election integrity. What are you prepared to do to ensure the next president will be the legitimately elected president, the candidates are asked. In response, Biden says, quoting administration officials, that there is no evidence of cheating and fraud. The president has embarked on an effort to intimidate people from voting but the president can’t stop you, Biden argued. Addressing voters directly, “You have it in your control”. But then we have suddenly shifted back to “Crooked Hillary” and the supposed spying on the Trump campaign and violations of Logan Act. Trump insisted that the mailing out of ballots is already an example of massive fraud and it “will be a fraud like nothing you’ve ever seen”. “We might never know who won.” “It’s a fraud and a shame.” “And it’s all run by Democrats.”
Wallace interrupted this colloquy to note a quarter of all votes in 2016 were mail-in ballots — and, in response, Trump acts out ballot sorting of “We don’t like ’em, we don’t like ’em. Ballots are being sold in West Virginia,” Trump insisted. Hunh? And then the mutual shouting has restarted.
Wallace asks if the two candidates will ask supporters to promise no unrest and violence until the results are officially certified. At this point, Trump charged his supporters’ poll watching are being “thrown out” of polling places. Fact check moment needed: Were these officially certified poll watchers? One wonders. Biden then begins to answer and Trump, true to form, interrupts multiple times in the final minutes. Sheesh.
Bottom line? This was an unedifying spectacle that shone the worst possible light on the democratic process. Accordingly, it is going to take herculean efforts to give the next debates, let alone the election itself, a sense of this being a great demonstration of democracy in action, word, and deed. DM
Popsicles were originally going to be called "Eppsicles" after their inventor Frank Epperson.