Trump vs. Biden: an exhausting and useless first debate

At the end of August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “I don’t think there should be any debates.” She went on to explain why, pointing out that Trump will “probably act in a way that is beneath the dignity of the presidency. He does that every day.” She was right.

It was impossible to not feel drained after these 90 minutes of chaos, lies and constant interruptions that overwhelmingly came from the president himself. There’s a very technical term we use for this sort debacle in the U.S.: a total shitshow. Presidential biographer Jon Meacham was more eloquent in his tweet, “No hyperbole: The incumbent’s behavior this evening is the lowest moment in the history of the presidency since Andrew Johnson’s racist state papers.”

Since he became a Republican presidential candidate in 2015, this man has been degrading debates, much as he’s gone on to degrade the presidency, America’s reputation and place in the world and American democracy in general. Before Trump, presidential debates were rather wonky affairs that revolved around policy prescriptions and even numbers, serving as a chance for candidates to make a more serious and robust case to the American people. But this doesn’t play to the strengths of a man who, prior to become president, made his most serious mark on the world as a reality-TV show host.

No, Trump doesn’t do serious policy. The only way he’s found to make debates work for him is by dumbing them down. Some might try to argue that it’s an actual strategy, but this is just how he rolls: keep other candidates struggling to get a word in edgewise and defend themselves from lies. We’ve seen it over and over.

Yet, Trump also did something very odd in the run up to the debate: he tried to lower expectations for Biden’s performance, saying he might not have the energy to make it through the 90-minute event and even suggested they should take drug tests beforehand. It must have been a shock for Trump’s supporters to see that Biden was plenty capable of spending an hour and a half on the debate stage with Trump. He was even able to land a few punches in between the constant verbal vomit. True, some of Biden’s best moments came when Trump was talking over him, like when he said, “You are the worst president America has ever had” or when Trump cut in saying “Can I be honest?” and Biden shot back: “Try and be honest.”

At other times Biden was visibly frustrated, saying “Will you shut up, man?” or noting that “this is so unpresidential.” He shined when he spoke directly to the camera, like towards the end of the debate when he said that “Under this president, we’ve become weaker, sicker, poorer and more divided.”

It was also strange for a sitting president to set such a contentious tone during a debate, the kind of tone that a challenger would try to set rather than a president defending his record from the past nearly four years. It smells of fear and highlights that Trump is the underdog here having been consistently behind in the national polls for months by about 7 to 9 points.

But awful as it was, this debate and future ones probably won’t have much impact on the polling or final results. As much as 11% of the electorate is undecided and only about 3% of them say that the debates will influence their decision. Further, about one million Americans have already voted, according to Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who runs the U.S. Election Project. He estimates that less than 10,000 peopled voted by this time in 2016. The past also points to how little the debates matter: Trump clearly lost 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton but won election. Biden’s debate performances in primaries were passable but not stellar, but he still won.

Yet, the frustration was palpable, even from the moderator himself, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. He tried and failed to reign Trump in, reminding him that his team had signed off on the rules and even trying humor at one point asking Trump, “if you want to switch seats, we can do that.” At another point, this veteran journalist resorted to yelling, then apologizing for it.

A Biden aid quickly assured journalists after the debate that he will participate in the two that are left, but Pelosi was spot on when she predicted that debates would be “beneath the dignity of the presidency.” The only hope we have for a serious debate this cycle will be next week’s matchup between Vice President Mike Pence, and vice-presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris.

This op-ed was published in Spanish in El Español.

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