It was an Awful Debate – But It’s Not All Bad News

There are Silver Linings to this Mess

I said earlier that these debates rarely make a difference, but there are exceptions. This may be one of those exceptions. Let’s look at why that may be so.

Was It That Bad?

Yep, it was. By all accounts, this was the worst such debate in history. Even Moderator Wallace agrees. This was even worse than those awful Republican primary debates in 2016. Whatever standing we had left as a leading country and an exemplary democracy took a merciless beating. The international media coverage and comments from people all over the world were brutal – and deserved.

Those who did not watch could get a pretty good feel for it from the media reports. These were almost universally negative. Except, of course, for Fox. If you watched any of their commentary, you would not believe they were talking about the same event.

It was a deeply unsatisfying evening. We learned nothing useful. The format demonstrated once again that is not up to the task.

So, What is There to Feel Good About?

If you are Donald Trump, not much.

He garnered HUGE negatives almost across the board. He flunked on presentation, content, comportment – you name it. Even Republican focus groups reported grim feedback. People who agreed with many of Trump’s policies said they could not vote for him after watching this event.

No doubt much of his base liked what they saw, but pretty much no one else did. Trump already has his base – he needed to bring in some of the few undecided. And he did the opposite.

Biden did not have his best night, but he had more than a good enough one. He looked presidential. He sounded rational, calm, thoughtful. Trump almost got under his skin a couple of times, but Joe pretty well kept it in check. OK, the line about shutting up and reference to a clown weren’t his best moments – but the man was not wrong.

He laughed at Trump at the right times. His addressing the public by talking to the camera was very effective. He refused to let the subject be adding supreme court justices. He kept it on who should nominate the next justice.

Here is an impressive sign of how badly Trump did and how well Biden did. Biden’s campaign raised an unbelievable $3.8 million over an hour of the debate. No one has ever come close to that.

The Personalities Reflect the Administrations

What people saw behind those podiums personified the two administrations on offer. If you are up for rude, bellicose lies shouted out, Trump was your guy. If you thought dignity, skills, and a sense of calm that seeks to represent most of us, Biden was your candidate.

This thing hit a human level for a lot of viewers. People imagined themselves working with the orange guy they saw behind the podium. They envisioned another four years of division and anger. And they found themselves saying to the TV, “No thanks. Let’s go with that other guy.”

Memorable Lines by Both

Both candidates had some memorial lines. Biden’s soliloquy to the people saying, “You control this election; he doesn’t” was powerful. His other big winner was “It is the way it is because you are who you are.” Ouch!

Trump cautioned Biden “Don’t talk to me about smart.” The subject got under his skin. It was good that Biden did not rise to the bait on personal insults. Not sure I would have been that disciplined. I could not have resisted the temptation. “OK, Donald. I acknowledge your daddy bought a building for the school and you got admitted. At least I took my own exams.”

But Trump’s most memorable line was when he advised a racist wannabe militia to “stand by.” I almost broke my neck when I heard that. There is zero doubt of exactly what that meant. That was followed by his call to his supporters to go to the polls and check out what is going on. That is illegal in just about every state. That is voter intimidation and/or forming an illegal militia. I expect there is going to be conflict all over the country because of what he said.

This May Finally Force Big Changes

One other good bit of news, besides the damage Trump did to himself and Republicans. This may finally force some changes in how to conduct debates – or kill them off altogether. They can be useful, but not enough for the overhead that comes with them currently. I would be fine if the VP debate went forward and they cancelled the rest.

What’s Next?

Trump is already saying he may not agree to changes. This might give him the excuse he needs to cancel out. OK with me. Let Biden go ahead with the town hall and cancel the rest of it. The nation would be grateful. By the way, the Commission on Presidential Debates is hard to reach. A friend found an email address for them, but you won’t find it on their web site. Understandable, after this week.

Any further debates will draw poorly. The first one already had a smaller than normal crowd. But real damage was done by Trump. He did damage to the country domestically and internationally. Mostly he did damage to himself.

This debate felt like the last shot to reverse his electoral fate. Yes, he can still cheat, but the chance to win the race died with the lights on that stage in Cincinnati.

Bill Clontz, Founder, Agents of Reason           Bill Clontz

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