Trump was right when he said that he’s “not a typical politician” in the final presidential debate last night. He has a talent for setting a low bar, so, compared to the last migraine-inducing debate, its easy to applaud his relatively subdued behavior in this one. But it’s worth noting and marveling at how before 2016, his lies, baseless attacks, constant blaming of others and endless braggadocio in any other candidate would have caused an uproar. We’ve now become so numbed to this behavior that we are impressed when he shows the least bit of restraint.
This presents a serious problem for analysts and journalists. We can twist ourselves in a bunch trying to find the words that properly describe just how outrageous, horrifying and baffling he is all at once, but they still don’t come close. Debates used to be a tightrope walk, where candidates mostly repeated prepared talking points and perhaps made a headline or two with either a new policy statement or a gaffe.
To put this into perspective, let’s just remember a few historic debate gaffes. In 1976, Gerald Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” In 1992, George H.W. Bush looked at his watch while an audience member asked him how the recession had affected him personally. Al Gore famously sighed a lot at George W. Bush’s statements during the 2000 debates. This all sounds like child’s play post-Trump.
To be sure, he did less interrupting last night. The reported muted microphones, however, didn’t make much of an appearance or impact. More likely, Trump’s advisors pleaded with him to let Biden talk this time, convincing him that this way, Biden could make his own mistakes. Since Trump thinks he’s the best, most popular guy around, they probably weren’t able to convince that his barking and bullying first debate performance left all but his most ardent supporters even more convinced that he’s a jerk. The polls confirmed this, with Biden’s recent double-digit lead of over 10 points.
Unfortunately for Trump, there were a few moments where Biden seemed to struggle with his lifelong stutter, but otherwise he didn’t make any significant gaffes. Biden made a smart move earlier in the day, by getting ahead of the question of “packing the Supreme Court” with more justices if the Amy Coney Barret nomination goes through. In an interview he said that he would establish a bipartisan commission to study a possible court reform, if elected. Therefore, a question about this was in the debate plans, but never came up. Biden did make one eyebrow-raising policy reveal: that he would work towards phasing out oil and start by ending oil industry subsidies. But again, compared to the Trump drama, this very controversial newsworthy statement gets lost in the overall takeaways.
Subdued or not, just about every Trump turn produced something that would have been considered an enormous gaffe by pre-Trump standards. Take your pick of the outright lies: “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump with the possible, possible, exception of Abraham Lincoln.” “He [Biden] did nothing except build cages to keep children in.” “But I have paid millions and millions of dollars. And it’s worse than paying. I paid in advance. It’s called prepaying your taxes.” Then there was the indecipherable, such as “I sold, while he was selling pillows and sheets, I sold tank busters to Ukraine. There has been nobody tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.” The Twitterverse was collectively scratching its head at that one.
Perhaps the most shocking thing was the back and forth over corruption and foreign ties. It was easy to blow past it without stopping to realize how profoundly strange it is to see two presidential candidates using that word on the debate state. But these are indeed strange times.
This debate was each candidate’s chance to make a closing argument to the American people. When asked what he would say at his inauguration, Trump started by saying, “we are on the road to success,” then pivoted to a lengthy attack on Biden. Biden’s words speak for themselves, “What is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance. I’m going to make sure you get that. You haven’t been getting it the last four years.”
How much does any of this matter? Polling usually doesn’t change all that much in the final two weeks of the campaign. Further, about 42 million people have already voted. Sure, some undecideds broke for Trump over that last weekend before voting day in 2016, but there were a lot of undecided voters then and not so many now. The few unsure voters who tuned in to the debate last night, might have seen a more “normal” version of Trump but they were nonetheless were presented with a stark choice.
This op-ed was published in Spanish in El Español.