There was a rough consensus in the political class before Thursday night’s presidential debate about what both candidates and the moderator needed to do to avoid a disaster. Defying precedent, both candidates and the moderator did those things.
The result: No disaster. No national embarrassment with a debate that hurtled off the rails. And likely no big alterations in a race that has stayed basically stable even through 2020’s twin traumas of pandemic and racial unrest and will finally end just eleven days from now.
Instead, the final presidential debate seemed to carry a vague whiff of normal. Was that for real? Or have expectations corroded so comprehensively that anything that doesn’t reek as acridly abnormal now seems inoffensive, or even the slightest bit pleasant?
President Donald Trump, according to the advance line, needed above all not to present as a loudmouth boor as he did at the first debate on Sept. 29, when he tried to avoid legitimate questions with bullying interruptions and bluster. He wouldn’t get an A in presidential comportment from any rigorous grader, but he did okay by the standards of this remedial classroom. A star on the forehead for him.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the thinking went, needed mostly to avoid getting yanked into some trap relating to untenable policy positions or his son’s overseas business dealings, and to do nothing that could lend credence to Trump’s frequent taunts that he is too enfeebled and infirm to be president. His answers were often crisp, sometimes a little soggy, but never an oh-no-where’s-he-going-with-this excursion along the Pacific Coast Highway. A star on the forehead for him.
Moderator Kristen Welker needed to do what two previous moderators at the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate could not accomplish -- to avoid being run off the road by interruptions and crosstalk and disregard for the debate rules, and to ensure that the audience had at least a shot at a coherent discussion of issues shadowing the country’s and world’s future. She achieved that with appealing poise. Two stars for her.
But now that the stars have been dispensed, an uncomfortable question about a debate ritual that is usually described in momentous terms: Who cares?
The custom is to review debates—and especially the “viral moments” they sometimes produce—on stylistic grounds, on the theory that in the modern presidency style and substance are intricately intertwined, and a high-profile encounter between rivals with tens of millions of people watching provides a good window into leadership character. In normal times that theory probably has a decent measure of truth.
But how many viewers Thursday night, or catching up on the proceeding Friday morning, could be so credulous that they somehow found their 2020 choice illuminated in a vivid new way?
Never before has the central question in a presidential race been framed in such a towering way: Do you approve of the incumbent’s disruptive approach to the presidency, and the world, or do you regard him as a menace to important institutions, customs, and values?
Never before has the challenger been on the national stage for 48 years. What Biden is, and what he isn’t, was well-established. At one point, as the president tried to tie him to Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party’s left flank, Biden said of Trump: “He’s very confused. He thinks he’s running against someone else. He’s running against Joe Biden.”
And who is that? At the auditorium at Belmont University in Nashville, that was a fairly polished version of the same guy who limped through the early primaries before suddenly taking command last March in South Carolina: An establishment politician whose instincts are centrist but who is adaptable enough to be a credible representative for a party with ascendant and impatient progressive voices. Against Trump Thursday night, no one was going to mistake Biden for Winston Churchill. But nor did he come off like Grampa Simpson.
With Trump, the evening raised—hardly for the first time—an intriguing possibility: What if he could sustain the kind of discipline and modulated performance that he offered for several stretches Thursday night, and had made this a regular feature of his presidency?
It seems unlikely that he would have chased away so many parts of the traditional Republican coalition, such as college-educated suburbanites, and be so acutely dependent on stimulating higher turnout among less-educated, occasional voters who share his contempt for conventional politics.
Trump’s regular refrain Thursday night was that he is not a typical politician, but that Biden is, and he kept asking if the former vice president thinks he has so many good ideas on health care or immigration or North Korea, why was he not able to get them done during the Obama years or during his decades in the Senate before that. He delivered the lines with a fluency and consistent focus that was missing from his scattershot first debate, and much of his rhetoric during the closing weeks of a campaign in which he is running behind.
No need to get too carried away on this flight of fancy. Trump is who he is. While he hurled fewer personal insults at Biden, he did hammer away at the business ventures of his son and brother, who he said have tried to profit from their proximity to power. Trump didn’t interrupt, and even complimented Welker (after days accusing her publicly of hopeless bias), but when he wasn’t speaking and the camera was on him his face seemed to suggest his intense impatience at having to contain himself.
Probably the most relevant section of the debate was the beginning, as Biden and Trump did in a reasonably intelligible way offer what are plainly genuine differences in philosophy about how to manage the competing values of mitigating risk and returning to regular routines during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I say we're learning to live with it,” Trump said. “We have no choice. We can't lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does… We can't close up our nation. We have to open our schools and we can't close up our nation or you're not going to have a nation.”
“He says that we're learning to live with it,” Biden retorted. “People are learning to die with it.” He added, “What I would say is I'm going to shut down the virus, not the country.”
One should not expect too many laughs at a presidential debate in a year marked by a deadly virus and racial protests, but there was one when Biden threw an elbow at Trump by saying, “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we've had in modern history.”
He was making a sarcastic reference to Trump’s earlier claim that he had done more to help African-Americans than any president “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln—possible exception.”
But Trump seemingly took Biden’s gibe as an opportunity to suggest the former vice president had become confused. “You made a reference to Abraham Lincoln,” he scoffed. “Where did that come in.”
As it happened, the Lincoln-Douglas debates will not need to squeeze in on history’s shelf to make way for fresh leather binders to preserve the fateful Trump-Biden encounters.
But, if we are grading on a curve, this debate was not bad at all by 2020 standards.