OPINION: Countdown to the 3rd: Master Debaters

Biden, Trump spar on the stage; Wallace cowers in the corner; Trump walks away with a “win”



Trump’s victory on the debate stage came at a price; while energizing his base, he likely didn’t swing any undecided voters.

JACOB HERSH, Evergreen columnist

“‘Jesus Christ, that’s horrible,’ I said to nobody in particular.”
-Hunter S. Thompson, “Better Than Sex”

If I were to suggest to you that we put two senior citizens on a stage surrounded by news cameras and have them go at it for an hour and a half, you’d lock me up and throw away the key. And yet, I sat and ate cold leftover fried rice and watched the future leaders of the free world talk over each other like Grandpa Simpson and Corrado Soprano — we are quite succinctly and literally, without a trace of exaggeration — f*cked.

Tuesday’s first presidential debate of the election cycle saw the two intellectual giants and titans of industry go toe-to-toe in the marketplace of ideas.

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was kitted out with what appeared to be the finest stimulant money can buy, and Donald J. Trump was freshly tanned to a leathery sheen.

Right off the bat, Trump came out swinging. He seemed to have perfected the debate technique he pioneered in 2016 against Clinton; namely, be the loudest and biggest guy in the room, like he was in some French Paleolithic hole jonesing for cavewomen. Surprisingly, this is a technique that worked. Biden was thrown off his footing almost immediately, from Trump’s first interruption to his final “wrong.”

Chris Wallace, the moderator equivalent of Martin from “The Simpsons,” was essentially useless against Trump’s weird blend of yelling and self-satisfied backhanded burns. It’s worth considering — has a presidential debate moderator ever been successful or even effective at their job, or do they serve some sort of half-assed symbolic purpose as a figurehead of “law and order”? Wallace would occasionally interject with a “Mr. President” or a halfhearted “sir” in an attempt to curb Trump’s steamrolling tangents, but it was like watching the lawyer get eaten off the toilet in “Jurassic Park” — a complete slaughter. Authority is dead.

Trump’s technique? Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes, almost reminiscent of Tony Soprano in his monomaniacal focus on pulling Biden apart. Biden, for his part, seemed to have been taking lessons from Ben Carson in soft-spoken jibes and lessons from a drama club sophomore on snappy insults.

Biden was unable to capture any kind of real win while being steamrolled by Trump. (COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Every instance in which he tried to beat Trump at his own game came off uniquely pathetically to the extent that they looked almost staged and rehearsed beforehand.

A forced “heh heh” to a Trump gaffe says more about Biden’s debate style than could a thousand well-crafted points. There’s no authenticity, and there’s no real personality behind our man from Delaware — he’s like a wax paper crane hanging over a radiator.

In terms of point-by-point arguments, the field narrowed a little more than I believe Trump expected — but not by much.

Wallace kicked off by asking about the Supreme Court debacle, to which Trump tried to justify his nomination of Barrett in the final months of his presidency by claiming that he wasn’t “president for three years, he’s president for four,” and arguing that Barrett’s nomination was within his rights as the executive.

It’s technically correct, but not an argument that’ll convince any undecided voters to come over to the Trump camp, so essentially, a pyrrhic victory — but Trump’s up by one.

Trump’s COVID-19 response was a hot-button issue, with Biden slamming the late and flawed federal response nationwide. Trump responded by blaming China for Xi Jinping’s lack of transparency, which is an argument that’s virtually guaranteed to energize his base.

A segue from the China response to blaming Biden for his response to the H1N1 virus in the mid-2000s gave Trump a slight upper hand, but the fact that Biden was able to get the virus to stick in the Republican’s craw made the question a draw, especially given the importance of COVID-19 response to voters.

Taxes were brought up — here Trump did a particularly strange bit of debate-craft, claiming that Dem policies instituted under Obama allowed him to get away with such blatant tax fraud. As far as taxes go, it’s not an issue that’s going to lose Trump any voters — they’ve already proven that they’ll stick with the guy despite his shady economic history, so while it may have been a technical victory for the Democratic establishment, the taxes amount to a red herring in the grand scheme of things.

Trump was able to sneak in some eminently sound-bite-worthy quotes, most notably “I’ve done more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years,” in response to a Biden critique, which is practically built for prime-time TV. Remember the GIF that set journalism endlessly posting the “wrong,” “nasty woman,” or “fake news” stills? It’s time for round two.

I went into the debate wondering if Biden’s history with the 1994 crime bill, a nasty bit of legislation for its effect on Black men, would be addressed — and it was. Trump pulled the debate equivalent of a kill shot when he called Biden out for his “yes” vote on the crime bill. Biden was, and I’m not exaggerating, unable to respond, which puts Trump solidly in the win category, if only for a dig on Biden’s character.

There was a point where the Delaware senator mentioned Trump’s reported “anti-Irish discrimination,” in which Biden claimed Trump had disparaged his Irish heritage before. It was like a deleted scene from “Gangs of New York” because when has there been any kind of codified Irish persecution since Teddy Roosevelt was shooting buffalo in South Africa? It was this incredible senile non sequitur that made me chuckle for the rest of the evening.

Police abolition, as it was bound to, came up, and both candidates tiptoed around the subject. Trump, of course, backed the blue, and Biden hemmed and hawed about “bad apples” and “underfunded police departments,” and ended up saying nothing particularly revolutionary or groundbreaking. No one won that section of the debate because it made me think about how Biden’s VP pick is, quite literally, a prosecutor who’s admitted on camera to jailing truant kids and families.

Climate change is where Biden shone, and Trump went off onto some strange tangent about “European tree cities” and “efficient cars.” I say Biden shone, but only in comparison to his particularly shoddy showing throughout the prior hour — his “Biden Plan”, as opposed to the Green New Deal, seemed destined to lose him some left-wing voters in the Ilhan Omar/AOC camp, but that’s neither here nor there. Biden won that one.

The election integrity question toward the end seemed to be a red herring. This was the talk of the town in 2016 — is Trump going to accept the results if he loses? As it turned out, that wasn’t a problem, but for it to be so hyped up as an “issue” speaks to how out of touch the moderators are with the actual problems voters are concerned about. Vote by mail, as prophesied, turned out to be a “storm of sound and fury,” signifying very little.

The debates are inherently dogsh*t. Nothing of value was said or communicated, and it all went to show how flawed the system of presidential debates is as a whole. Trump won, but in the same way that the guy in grade school who could drink the most expired milk would “win.” (We all had one.) Biden mumbled his way through talking points that sounded all the more pathetic spoken through Trump’s interjections, and Wallace did absolutely jack sh*t to enforce any kind of order.

My prediction that Trump would call Biden grade school names didn’t necessarily come through, but there are still two debates left. For my part, I’ll be glued to the TV, waiting for the boys to go at it again. This would have been a million times more interesting with Joe Rogan.