Sure, it is easy to make fun of civics-class pieties about how the election ultimately belongs to the voters, and how America as the oldest democracy serves as an example to the world. But aren’t those maxims supposed to be at least kind of true?
It is hard to imagine how the evening could have been more disrespectful to voters or a more embarrassing glimpse into the state of American political culture at moment when the country’s reputation in the world is already under severe challenge. Cumulatively this made the debate simply uncomfortable, like accidentally opening the office supply closet and seeing a naked colleague—just avert your gaze and walk away.
“That was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said on air, shortly after the candidates left the stage. “It wasn’t even a debate—it was a disgrace.”
Come now, the debate must have had some redeeming qualities? There were some, arguably, if one squints through the haze.
Biden and Trump offered genuinely different worldviews of how to manage the coronavirus pandemic. Trump argued that he is better at managing competing imperatives of public health and economic recovery, while Democrats are too quick to urge shutdowns at the expense of jobs and people’s emotional well-being, without making rational distinctions between older and sicker people who are at highest risk, and younger people who are not.
Biden said the economy can’t recover until businesses get more financial help to reopen safely, and said Trump is exerting so much political pressure on the public health agencies that people can’t trust the government’s own pronouncements. He said the economic effects are exacerbating inequalities, with the rich generally doing fine even during the pandemic and many service workers already at the economic margins facing years of distress.
For the most part, however, even policy discussions descended into guttural sentence fragments that didn’t add up to anything coherent. When Trump taunted that Democrats were in the grip of the left—“Your party wants to go socialist medicine”—Biden noted that he prevailed over candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders, who wanted to end private health insurance, and that he has his own energy plan that is different from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal.” But then Trump simply switched his taunt: “You just lost the left! You just lost the left!”
In one section of the debate, Trump argued that Biden is so weak on crime that, “It’s crazy. He doesn’t want to say law and order. He can’t. He’ll lose the radical left supporters and once he does that it’s over with.” But in another section, he said Biden will underperform with African Americans because of his advocacy of the 1994 crime bill and for complaining about criminal “super predators.”
Consistency wasn’t the point. Pulling Biden, Wallace, the sponsoring Commission on Presidential Debates, and everyone watching to the level of disruptive chaos where Trump has thrived in the past likely was the point.
Having reached that point, it’s not clear where to go in three remaining debates—one between Vice President Mike Pence and Democrat Kamala Harris next week, and two more Trump-Biden encounters later in October. It is hard to imagine the next debates being more debased and debasing than this one. It’s also hard to see what dynamics exist in contemporary American politics to coax them to a higher level.