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Review | At this presidential debate, we all lost


History was made last night. The kind of history that may unseat the Sept. 26, 1960, Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate as the default anecdote about how a TV moment transformed American politics. A night that began with cautious optimism from the president’s campaign ended with panicked calls from multiple quarters for the Democrats to somehow, in the weeks before the convention, find a new nominee.

That President Biden had a terrible night does not mean former president Donald Trump performed well. The evening was not gladiatorial.

The candidates squabbled about golf (Trump accused Biden of lying about his handicap, then suggested they not “act like children.”) Asked how he would make child care more affordable, Trump replied that he fired the general who overheard him calling dead veterans “suckers and losers” (that would be Gen. John Kelly, his own former chief of staff) and faulted Biden for not firing anyone. Besides “I didn’t have sex with a porn star, number one,” other memorable bon mots include, “We had H2O. We had the best numbers ever” (Trump) and “We’ve — by the way, we brought an awful a lot of people — the whole idea of computer chips” (Biden).

The distinction between the candidates is evident even in that microcosm: One spewed lies and boasted about nonsense with a level of confidence that impresses partly because it’s so unearned. And the other kept interrupting himself while feebly making half-remembered policy points.

Both candidates are record-breakingly old, historically unpopular and highly improbable winners of past presidential elections. As the incumbent, President Biden needed to defend his record and demonstrate to those concerned about his age that he could govern for four more years. Donald Trump needed to reassure undecided voters that he was not going to reject the results of yet another election, dissolve NATO, or sign a federal abortion ban.

Both failed. But the difference in response stems from the fact that Trump’s defects are, given how much voters know about him, priced in. Biden’s are not.

There are several reasons for that (including incumbency, which always poses an electoral challenge). The main one, though, is that the president’s approach to public exposure has almost perfectly opposed his opponent’s. So much so that I argued, at the beginning of 2020, that Biden would float to victory — in a contested Democratic primary — on the strength of his ability to fade. To not react. Whereas Trump craved the spotlight, held rallies and spent every waking hour in high dudgeon, often on Twitter, Biden avoided appearances and interviews. He didn’t really attack his fellow Democratic candidates, and their attacks on him likewise didn’t land.

Some speculated at the time that his campaign was shielding him (the few interviews he did give were a little odd). But whatever his reasons, Biden’s approach offered an exhausted electorate something they craved at the time: permission to tune out. That helped him get elected. Whether it helped his presidency is a more complicated question; Biden’s unwillingness and inability to court attention has, for example, made it difficult for him to sell the public on his achievements.

The point is, voters haven’t seen the president a whole lot. They didn’t want to watch him, and he didn’t much want to be watched. Last night’s debate was therefore, among other things, his reintroduction to a significant percentage of the public.

It went extraordinarily badly.

Biden needed to project energy but spoke in a hoarse near-whisper. He needed to show focus but lost his train of thought. A much-cited moment early in the debate, when he meandered through an answer that began with a discussion of taxes and ended with the phrase “we beat Medicare,” not seeming to know what he meant himself, was agonizing to watch. Many of his attacks were feeble — more “whiner” than “felon.” This being TV, where style trumps substance, Biden’s slack-jawed, vacant expression during much of the debate shocked viewers almost as much as his subpar performance.

But the substance wasn’t great, either. The president garbled several accounts of his own very notable policy achievements. His answer on abortion was strange. And rather than rhetorically outmaneuver Trump — or offer his own narrative, or characterize his opponent as a threat to democracy — he frequently fell into the trap of accepting his framing. For example, rather than point out that women are being prosecuted for miscarriages and dying because Roe v. Wade was overturned, or that children are being forced to give birth, he replied (to Trump’s absurd claim, with regard to overturning the decision, that “every legal scholar wanted it that way”) that for fifty-one years, “constitutional Scholarship said it was the right way to go.”

That was the point Biden chose to challenge while several bigger lies went unchecked.

Now, tangling with Donald Trump is no easy task. Not because he’s a good debater (as the skill has been traditionally understood), but because he’s habituated the world to his rhetorical strategy, which goes well beyond “lying” and amounts to a kind of verbal DDoS attack. Being unconcerned with the truth, he resorts often to kettle logic, throwing out multiple versions of a position so listeners can choose the one they prefer. (For those unfamiliar, kettle logic refers to a story about a guy who borrowed a neighbor’s kettle and returned it broken. The borrower’s defense was that the kettle was already broken when he borrowed it, that it was undamaged when he returned it, and that, moreover, he never borrowed it at all.)

That shouldn’t work. But Trump has proven not only that it does, but that effectively countering the strategy in real time is really, really hard.

It barely registered last night, for example, that Trump blamed Nancy Pelosi for the events of January 6. That’s bananas, but it happened. He claimed she took responsibility and he boasted, beside, that he could feel that “they” were coming to the Capitol and would be sufficiently numerous that he offered either the mayor or Pelosi (it’s not clear) 10,000 troops to deal with them. Here’s part of that spiel:

“And the mayor of — in writing, by the way, the mayor, in writing turned it down, the mayor of D.C., they turned it down. I offered 10,000 because I could see — I had virtually nothing to do. They asked me to go make a speech. I could see what was happening. Everybody was saying they’re going to be there on January 6th. They’re going to be there. And I said, ‘you know what, that’s a lot of people coming, you could feel it. You could feel it too.’ And you could feel it. And I said, they ought to have some National Guard or whatever.’ And I offered it to her. And she now admits that she turned it down. And it was the same day. She was — I don’t know, you can’t be very happy with her [Pelosi’s] daughter because it made her into a liar. She said, I take full responsibility for January 6th.”

Having faulted Pelosi for foolishly rejecting his prescient offer of military aid to deal with the rioters (there is, of course, no record of any such offer), he attacked Joe Biden for destroying their lives:

“What they’ve done to some people that are so innocent, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, what you have done, how you’ve destroyed the lives of so many people.” At another point, he suggested that the rioters were “ushered in by the police.”

It wouldn’t be easy to pithily point out, in the minute allotted, how those three accounts don’t square. (Do you start with the Pelosi? The troops offer?) And it wouldn’t matter if you did; Trump would have already moved on, since he doesn’t much care about what he says and knows it’s not true.

Effectively countering that technique probably requires some combination of quick thinking, verbal dexterity, brilliant stagecraft and (to avoid accusations of pedantry) humor. Plus total mastery of your own narrative — and an ability to pivot back to it quickly, so the public hear whatever it is you want to actually say. It’s not a fair ask, but Biden more or less managed it in 2020.

This time, he didn’t. And the American people got some of the most brutal television in political history. Brutal to listen to, brutal to watch. A dispiriting spectacle comprising two different strains of unfitness. That one poses a far greater threat than the other is not a comfort.

There’s no real hope that either candidate can unify the country. But on that funereally silent debate stage, with no audience, no fact-checking and scant moderation from CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, their joint appearance made a far more frightening case for the risks facing the country than either managed to make alone.


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