I don’t know about you, but I held my breath for almost two hours Tuesday night. I knew by decent standards that Donald Trump lied and bullied in the first debate – scam, really – but I’m not used to my mainstream peers pointing this out to him. Instead, I thought former Vice President Joe Biden should have entered the trash talk contest and challenged Trump about who could be more disobedient.
I was wrong – and this time I was glad I was wrong. When the debate ended, cable television commentators, even Republicans, shuddered. CNN’s Dana Bash, a great reporter and as mainstream as she comes, called it a “shit show”. (After all these years, I didn’t know you could say that about cables, too.) And I realized: I was so depressed by Trump’s brazen betrayal and abuse of norms – truly human decency – that I thought Biden would just be then counted as a winner if he yelled at him. Better still for me: when he crossed the stage and slapped Trump in the mouth.
From the moment in the first GOP debate in 2015, when Trump refused to pledge to support the eventual GOP candidate, he has broken all the rules – the debate and everything else. Politico’s Ryan Lizza wrote a play that reminded us that Trump was better than we remember – even in the debates with Hillary Clinton – and Progressive Twitter stood up against him on Tuesday. But Lizza was right: I was impressed with the clip, which has been played a lot since then New York Times released his blockbuster Story of his tax returns from a debate with Clinton in 2016: When she talked about raising taxes on the rich like her and Trump, but then realized he could avoid them like before, Trump interjected, “That makes me smart , With perfect timing.
Four years later, Trump just threw in, but his timing wasn’t that good. It didn’t matter; Chris Wallace, the star of Fox News, the best of this sad bunch, let the Bully-in-Chief run over him and Biden. I hope Wallace woke up mad at himself Wednesday morning for letting it happen. I hope the future moderators will watch it and steel themselves, determined not to allow such a desecration of the norms of debate or their own personal dignity.
Even so, I think Biden did what he had to do: show his human decency. And Trump showed he didn’t have one.
Trump refused to condemn white supremacy. Incredibly, he told the white far-right outsiders the Proud Boys “Stand back and stand by,” he added “Somebody has to do something about Antifa and the left.” But when he got to Hunter Biden, as widely predicted, the former vice president had one of his best moments: “My son, my son, my son, ”he interrupted Trump’s attack. “How many people, how many people we know at home, had a drug problem, he made it past it, he fixed it, he worked on it and I’m proud of him.”
I’m sure the millions of parents who strive to help adult children deal with addiction nodded along with Biden. And again, thank goodness, I’m not running for president: I might have pointed out the recent videos and television appearances where Don Jr. looks like he’s completely beside himself or whatever he got of it, and Trump urged his oldest boy to help. I’m sure Biden knows some reliable resources.
Occasionally – and I appreciated it – Biden would hit back. “Are you going to shut up man?” He once challenged Trump, adding, “This is so unpresidential.” He called Trump a “clown” – “Guys, do you have any idea what this clown is doing?” more than once, but Trump talked about him. I think he once called Trump a “racist clown” – but the volume on the two boys’ microphones didn’t seem the same. Otherwise Biden would have to scream.
Ultimately, it was good news for Biden, however it hurt. Conventional wisdom has it that a front runner wins if they don’t lose a debate. Which means that Biden won with the exception of the most blinking accounts. And he did. He has a considerable head start, nationally and in the swing states. I wanted him to swing Trump, but he did what he had to do: look like a decent person. President, even if we can remember that far back. Biden’s eyes flashed occasionally anger and sometimes pity for the over-matched president. I’m not sure how exactly anger and compassion is right when dealing with Trump, but Biden achieved an admirable mix.
I admit: I’ve underestimated Biden’s appeal since the 2020 cycle began. I didn’t want him to run. I was impressed with our election of Democratic Senators, and after Clinton’s stabbing defeat, I hoped we would pick one. But Biden knows the rules of the white, male political fight club: either you beat the crap out of the other or you stand there with dignity and let him throw vain punches and wear himself out. Trump looked exhausted last night.
That was Biden’s choice. It was the right one. And since he’s backed by an army of suffrage lawyers to make sure he prevails on election night – or election month as I like to call it – I trust my frenzied, fear-driven comparisons on Tuesday night between the ugly debate and the election, are wrong.
Still, I hope that the future moderators will observe Wallace’s self-humiliation and learn from it. And ask for one thing: A way to turn off a recalcitrant debater’s microphone when necessary. Even if I could put up with this disrespectful debate shit show – and let’s face it, I get paid for it – American voters shouldn’t have to.