The winner may not have been clear, but the loser was: we, the people. On Sept. 29, the first presidential debate was at best painful and at worst downright unwatchable, bearing more resemblance to a spirited bingo night at a retirement home than the pinnacle of Presidential politics. Still, only one candidate did what they set out to do: Joe Biden. Performances in presidential debates are often defined by the pre-debate expectations, and the Trump campaign’s summer of attacks on Biden’s mental fitness and stamina (think “Sleepy Joe”) set Biden’s bar at trip-over-it low heights. He stayed upright, made it through most of his sentences without slaughtering the English language and didn’t let the President’s repeated interruptions and attacks get under his skin. That was enough for a victory, if hardly a convincing one.
President Trump blows his chance: President Trump failed to seize one of his final opportunities to shake up what has been a remarkably stable race. Joe Biden has led in polling averages for over a year, casting the election as a referendum on the President and a “battle for the soul of America.” President Trump needed to flip the script on Tuesday night. He did not. He instead repeated something of a greatest hits soundtrack, attacking Joe Biden on his ties to the radical left and his perceived weakness on China. He came across like a bully — interruptive and argumentative. He was everything he has been for the last four years, and in doing so, he played right into Joe Biden’s hands. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, 64% of Americans believe that our country is “on the wrong track.” With 73 million people watching, President Trump had a chance to define how his second term would be different from the first. Instead, he confirmed what we already know: there is no changing Donald Trump.
The issues that mattered: Amid a pandemic, it should not be surprising that discussion of the coronavirus was prominent at Tuesday’s debate. Still, the extent to which COVID-19 dominated was eye-opening. Vice President Biden related his answers back to the pandemic during discussions of the Supreme Court, the economy, racial injustice and the Trump record. It is clear that the coronavirus continues to be the most important issue in the Presidential race. Perhaps the most substantive discussion of the debate came during the section on “Race and Violence in our Cities.” Both candidates believe that they can use this issue to their advantage and, accordingly, each of them was willing to discuss policing and criminal justice policy. Of course, the debate’s most memorable moment also came during this portion when moderator Chris Wallace asked the President to disavow white supremacist groups. While the President did say he was “willing to do that,” his immediate pivot to left-wing violence and call on the neo-Fascist “Proud Boys” group to “stand back and stand by” was deeply unsettling to many.
The debate we deserved: In many ways, the debate was the climax of a years-long deterioration of our political culture. For a decade now, politicians have favored combat over compromise. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said last month that “stagecraft is statecraft,” defining the governing philosophy of our next generation of leaders. Politics, especially in the Trump era, is not about governing, but about entertainment. Personality is substituted for policy, ratings substituted for results. The product? Tuesday night’s debacle: neither entertaining nor educational.