On Tuesday evening, millions of Americans hobbled by the coronavirus, exhausted after a long summer of wildfires and civil rights protests, suffering through mass unemployment and growing ever more cynical about government from years of toxic political discourse switched on our televisions to hear what the two men vying for our nation’s highest office had to say for themselves. What were their plans for ending the pandemic and getting people back to work? How about the climate crisis, or filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, or the recent resurgence of militant white supremacy? Could our current President explain his already-notorious $750 income tax bill? The first 2020 presidential debate didn’t offer much novel information on any of those urgent topics. It did, however, leave many of us with a new question to ask ourselves: Why did we just put ourselves through that? Whatever the reason, we shouldn’t make the same mistake again.
It’s not that the debate—which was scheduled to run 90 commercial-free minutes but ended up bleeding into the next half-hour as egregiously as any Oscars telecast—produced any shocking revelations. The candidates performed exactly as pundits (and probably most laypeople) predicted. President Trump attacked and interrupted, showing little regard for facts. He shouted over not just the former Vice President, but also the moderator, Chris Wallace, of Trump’s beloved Fox News. He turned frequent criticisms of his own administration around on his opponent, claiming that it wasn’t him but Joe Biden who had a history of racism, Joe Biden who had a problematic relationship with Russia, Joe Biden whose response to COVID-19 would be catastrophic. Trump accused his moderate rival of adopting a “radical leftist” platform, then repeatedly chided him for taking stances the far left wouldn’t like. He also dodged inquiries about the biggest controversies that have surrounded him, from his skepticism regarding the settled science of climate change to his newly leaked tax returns. He responded to a question about whether he would disavow his white supremacist groups by, confusingly, instructing the neofascist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” The group interpreted the mention as an endorsement.
Biden started off a bit shaky, as usual. But he recovered quickly enough, relaxing into his standard persona: the decent, reasonable, compassionate guy offended by Trump’s lack of decorum and put off by radicalism of all stripes. Faced with an opponent who has never showed much interest in meat-and-potatoes debate, the conspicuously prepared Biden mixed his recitations of facts, figures and policy ideas that once dominated such events with equally rehearsed responses to the President’s antics. He chuckled ruefully when Trump made a wild accusation and winced as if enduring mortal pain when Trump boasted or prevaricated. Amid so much bluster, even the bluntest comebacks (“You are the worst President America has ever had,” “Everybody knows he’s a liar“) barely registered. So Biden also tried speaking directly into the camera, warning viewers that he didn’t trust Trump to produce a COVID-19 vaccine and encouraging early, in-person voting. If his insistence on civilized discourse kept him from, say, mentioning the late Herman Cain when Trump claimed his corona-era rallies had done no harm or questioning the “secret police” the President deployed in Portland when Trump denounced Democrats’ handling of the city’s Black Lives Matter protests, well, at least he avoided any major gaffes.
Judged against their respective past debate performances, both candidates had a pretty average night. It was Wallace who turned out to be the weak link. Alternately timid, mildly annoyed and chummy with one candidate or the other, he often allowed them to answer the questions they wanted rather than the ones he posed. He rarely followed up when a response called for more context. Trump was allowed to describe critical race theory as “sick” and “racist” without demonstrating any knowledge of the principles it teaches. Biden got to defend his moderate cred by saying things like “I am the Democratic Party right now,” without elaborating on where and why he diverged with his colleagues on the left. In more than one instance, Wallace spoke to Trump as though addressing a preschooler, coaxing him to move on from arguments he wouldn’t drop by suggesting that, “Mr. President, you’re gonna be very happy” with the next topic. Rarely did he bother to correct a misleading statement.
And so we came out of the debate, us weary Americans, just as informed or ignorant as we were going into it. That frustration was to be expected. In advance of the showdown, most analysts seemed to agree that it would be futile for the candidates to try to persuade undecided voters. “If a global pandemic and recession couldn’t fundamentally change the numbers in this race, it’s hard to believe 90 minutes of televised debate will,” Democratic operative Lis Smith pointed out in an interview with TIME’s Molly Ball. “It’d be easier to find a Nepalese yeti in Cleveland than a voter who truly hasn’t decided between the two diametrically opposed candidates and their political parties,” wrote Lorraine Ali of the L.A. Times. So each delivered a familiar spiel to his own base, something the candidates don’t even need to be in the same conversation—or the same room—to do.
It is traumatic to live in a country where everyone is suffering, some much more than others, but political polarization has made even the most seemingly apolitical crises into us-vs.-them conflicts. In the end, all Tuesday’s tête-à-tête accomplished was to pour fresh salt on festering wounds. And with that in mind, canceling the final two debates of the 2020 election cycle—debates that seem more likely to create confusion than to dispel it—sounds like the only humane option. Networks could fill the time with fact-checked primers on the issues, or crucial information on how to exercise our voting rights, or reruns of Scandal. Just about anything would be more helpful in preserving our democracy than what we just witnessed.
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