Presidential debates are a valued political tradition dating back to 1960, when Senator John F. Kennedy debated Vice President Richard Nixon. When most traditions seem to be fading away, and political campaigning is turning into a series of Zoom fundraisers, holding a debate in a somewhat usual manner was a chance for the American people to feel like their country and its political institutions were still functioning. It was a chance to feel normal.
That did not happen on Tuesday night.
The long-awaited first debate between President Donald Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden was, as CNN’s Jake Tapper so eloquently put it, a “hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” The debate represented everything wrong with American politics, so much so that it makes the traditional morning-after question of “Who won the debate?” seem quaint and even irrelevant. Despite the urge to tune out and spend the next month living under a rock, it is important to keep in mind that it may very well be the undecided voters who watched the debate on Tuesday who will decide the next President of the United States.
Around 15 minutes into the debate, Biden delivered one of the most talked about lines of the night, asking the President, “Will you shut up, man?”, followed by “this is so unpresidential.” After five years of seeing Trump on the national political stage, for anyone to be shocked that he is acting in a non-distinguished manner seems extremely naive. To think that the rude behavior of the President will sway a MAGA-hat wearing supporter is plain ridiculous.
The insulting behavior of Trump is not a flaw of his political brand, it’s the very function of it. Trump’s so-called populist vision has always been about dismantling the traditional inner workings of the Washington establishment and refusing to play by the rules of the elite. Despite his first term not remotely reflecting the idea of “draining the swamp,” his supporters continue to believe that he is the voice of ordinary people. To satisfy his right-wing base, Trump has created an identity of projecting strength and dominance by bullying those around him, even his own Cabinet secretaries.
The big question about the debate was never how respectful or civil Trump would act; it was whether his signature brand of interruption and lies would fit in this specific moment and how Biden would respond while trying to make his own case to the American people.
Biden ran for President twice before, withdrawing before the primaries in 1988 and receiving less than 1% of the vote in Iowa in 2008. The only reason why a majority of Americans have even heard of him is because then-Senator Barack Obama made the coin-toss decision to select him as his running mate in 2008.
In 2019, Biden entered the race for President with the strategy of embracing the accomplishments of the Obama administration as his own while deflecting blame for failures by arguing he was unable to impact those decisions. This strategy helped secure him the Democratic nomination despite his poor performance in the primary debates.
Basically, Biden was never the best at campaigning for the presidency. This was evident on Tuesday night. It is certainly valid to argue that Trump’s constant interruptions and his pathological lying prevented Biden from properly answering the questions. Still, he should have been prepared for this situation. The real issue is that even when Trump did allow Biden to speak, he really didn’t have anything convincing to say.
Much of the commentary on the debate argued that Biden looking directly into the camera and addressing the American people was a brilliant strategy. What did he actually say? When he was trying to make an argument that Roe v. Wade was at stake, the President asked, “Why is it on the ballot?” Biden didn’t answer by explaining how access to safe abortion is a crucial human right or by talking about how congressional Republicans want to defund Planned Parenthood. Instead, he replied, “It’s on the ballot in the court.”
When Trump repeatedly attacked Hunter Biden, claiming that he had made millions of dollars in Ukraine through corrupt strategies, Joe Biden didn’t bring up the fact that Trump had funneled money to his children in order to dodge taxes, or how he had taken advantage of his position as President to profit his personal business interests; he simply chose to remark that the report was debunked.
Biden also allowed Trump to frame him as an empty vessel for progressive Democrats, spending time explaining why he was against the proposals of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, instead of attacking Trump about his non-existent health-care plan and his complete denial of climate change. It was the moderator Chris Wallace, not Biden, who brought up the fact that Trump didn’t have any proposal with which to replace the Affordable Care Act. Even Trump’s extremely inappropriate attacks about Biden’s son’s drug use could have been an opportunity for Biden to lay out his plan on dealing with addiction and mental health; he didn’t.
Shortly after the debate, the New York Times asked its readers to comment on what they had just watched. Jackson Miller from Florida wrote, “Many will mourn the loss of this kind of pablum, but I think others will find it refreshing.” This is likely to ring true with voters in the country worst hit by the global COVID-19 pandemic — the U.S. has had over 200,000 deaths and is facing a serious economic recession.
Americans, now more than ever, understand that leadership — or lack thereof — has real life consequences. They know that this is a real and critical choice. So while Trump’s outrageous rhetoric and baseless claims may have won him the debate before, in this moment it is much more likely that an uninspiring yet sane performance is what Americans were looking for. According to this interpretation and according to post-debate polling, Biden managed to pull out a victory on Tuesday night — not because of his own performance but because Trump no longer matches the mood of the American people.
Kerim Bali is a sophomore from Istanbul, Turkey studying Political Science. He is a member of A Place to Talk.