Chris Wallace, who tried to moderate this week’s raucous presidential debate, regrets “a terrible missed opportunity.” My 14-year-old daughter, by contrast, thought it was a gas. She watched the debate with rapt attention, laughed repeatedly, and afterward kept going on about how great it was.
I cautioned her that the Trump-Biden spectacle was far from typical of presidential debates, which are generally very dull affairs that most people, aside from passionate partisans, watch only out of a vague sense of civic (or professional) duty. But I was also alternately amused and flabbergasted by the president’s antics.
I disagree with the many critics who called the debate “unwatchable.” It was extremely watchable, more so than any presidential debate I can recall. But my reaction may be idiosyncratic, since my favorite moment from Trump’s debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016 came after she called him Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “puppet.” That epithet led to this exchange:
Trump: No puppet. No puppet.
Clinton: And it’s pretty clear…
Trump: You’re the puppet!
Clinton: It’s pretty clear you won’t admit…
Trump: No, you’re the puppet.
One striking thing about Trump’s refusal to play by the rules or show even a modicum of civility was its effect on Joe Biden. The Democratic candidate actually engaged in more ad hominem attacks than his bullying, ever-interrupting opponent, who is hardly shy about tossing around personal insults. While Trump questioned Biden’s intelligence by averring that he “graduated last” in his class at the University of Delaware, Biden called Trump a “liar,” a “fool,” a “clown,” and a “racist.”
At least three of those four epithets are demonstrably accurate. But they are not the sort of thing politicians are supposed to say in public, and they surely did not help advance a substantive discussion of public policy. “This is so unpresidential,” Biden complained at one point, even while emulating Trump’s rhetorical style.
Prior to Trump, memorable put-downs in presidential and vice presidential debates included genial admonitions (“There you go again“), condescending comparisons (“You’re no Jack Kennedy“), and echoes of fast-food slogans (“Where’s the beef?“). Biden, provoked by Trump, has really upped the ante.
Does Biden’s resort to personal taunts reveal something about his character, or is it an understandable, maybe even justifiable, response to Trump’s babyish behavior? We know what Biden’s supporters think. After the debate, the Biden Victory Fund immediately started hawking a T-shirt with “Will you shut up, man” emblazoned across the president’s face. Notably, that is what Biden said when Trump pressed him to answer a perfectly legitimate question—”Are you going to pack the [Supreme] Court?”—that Biden was keen to dodge.
People appalled by this week’s spectacle may worry that Trump has not only made rational discussion in this particular campaign impossible but forever ruined presidential debates—which, let’s be honest, were never that great to begin with, although they did at least sometimes manage to communicate something about the candidates’ positions and aspirations. But I am inclined to agree with Eric Boehm that the “dumpster fire” Trump ignited, by burning away any pretense of mutual respect, laid bare the paucity of our political choices.
The main promise of a Trump presidency was that he would destroy the respect and deference that occupants of his office automatically receive. Likewise, the main promise of presidential debates dominated by insults, interruptions, and cross-talk is that they will destroy the notion that we are ruled by wise men who know what’s best for us.
My daughter, who started watching the debate with a strong anti-Trump bias, emerged unimpressed by either candidate. She would be hard pressed to say what either of them has to offer, aside from entertainment value. In a country dominated by two parties with incoherent principles they do not follow, this is the beginning of political wisdom.