Trump’s Mike Tyson Strategy Tyson famously said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Trump’s strategy in the first debate was clearly to come out swinging big roundhouse punches, hope a couple landed, and knock Biden off balance. To some degree it worked. Trump came in hot and in the first 10 minutes it seemed as if Biden was already gasping for air (“The 20 — the 200 mil — the 200,000 people that have died on his watch, how many of those have survived?” Biden blurted). It was immediately apparent that there would be absolutely no substance in this debate. It was raw, visceral politics. Trump learned very early in his career (from Jesse Ventura’s campaign manager, in fact) that what you say isn’t as important as how you say it. Trump unleashed months of pent-up anger against Biden and it wasn’t pretty. He did it with energy and passion, and for a short period, Biden seem diminished, a man without a plan. Slowly, he recovered, and for most of the debate he remained on his front foot. He regained his energy, landed a few punches of his own and showed genuine moments of passion, such as when he was defending his son Beau. When you get in the ring with Trump, there’s no warm-up. Be ready at the bell.
Biden’s ‘L’etat c’est moi’ Moment Channeling Louis XIV, Biden said, “My party is me. I am the Democratic Party right now,” as Trump accused him of promoting a “socialist” health plan. Biden was scrambling for a safe haven in the center and making the pitch that he is sensible and pragmatic when it comes to one of the most contentious public policy issues of our time. But he didn’t really expect us to believe that did he? The so-called Biden-Sanders plan, the manifesto of a Biden administration, is a wildly ambitious progressive vision that strays far beyond the centrist foundation of American politics. The left wing of Biden’s party pushed him hard during the primary and will continue to push him hard if he’s elected. Biden himself will not define the Democratic Party going forward. To a great extent, it will be defined by the zealous, overheated vision of the AOC/Sanders/Warren/Omar back bench. Joe may ultimately surprise us, but so far he seems content to be a surrogate for the Democratic Party, not a leader.
Can This Hole Get Any Deeper? You know what they say, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. I thought we were approaching rock bottom of the incivility running through our political discourse, but we dug much deeper in this debate. There were many moments that would have fit right into a junior high playground. “You’re not smart!” “Shut up, man!” “You’re a liar!” The better angels of our nature fled the debate hall before the opening bell, never to return. The day after, Politico reported some movement toward new rules meant to provide more structure to future debates.
Chris Wallace Did About As Good As He Could Let’s face it, it was the worst job in the world. Wallace became a potted plant in the first 10 minutes, with Trump talking over him, ignoring the format rules, and seizing unilateral command of the stage. Wallace pushed back valiantly and regained a modicum of control at some point, but chaos always lurked around the corner. But, really, what else could he have done? The candidates wouldn’t agree to a kill button on the microphones. But even if they did, can you imagine the explosion of #cancelculture hashtags the first time Wallace killed Trump’s mic? I’m sure the closing bell could not have come soon enough for Wallace.
Demagoguing Isn’t Beneath Either Candidate Trump’s dodgy dance around the question of white supremacy, ending in his wink to the Proud Boys (“Stand back and stand by”) was a shameless dog whistle. So too was Biden’s remark inferring that Americans shouldn’t necessarily trust a vaccine that has been developed under Trump’s direction, when public officials should be working overtime to build confidence in a vaccine.
I’m Not Watching the Other Debates That’s it. Done. As Voltaire said, “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.” Watching another debate like this one – and it’s unlikely the next two will evolve into something resembling an orderly, traditional, substantive debate – could cause permanent damage. And we’ve all got way too much other serious stuff to deal with right now