The bar for Donald Trump set by his own words and deeds is so low that he is given a passing grade if he delivers anything shy of venomous invective and incoherent, raging bombast impervious to even the most elemental notions of veracity, decency, honor. Michael Anton, a devout Trumpist, describes him as "brash…a WWF-style figure in politics" (Writer Michael Anton Makes the Case). For Anton, as for Trump, this is all to the good because it is all about firing up a base that goes for this stuff. A WWF-style figure is not what many of us have in mind for presidential demeanor and comportment. (And if you want a brash, WWF-style figure, don't settle for a cheap imitation. Check out the real deal, the American Dream Dusty Rhodes in his epic "hard times" promo from 1985. That is how it is done.)
In what passes in our decadent age for a real debate, another low bar, the president was restrained by his standards, which is to say, for the most part he spoke calmly, as if he were a serious person. Content was another matter, consisting of lies, slander, and innuendo served up with WWF-style exaggeration and braggadocio. He declined to offer so much as the sketchy outline of a plan for the pandemic or health care.
Joe Biden opened his segments with talking points but moved on to respond to questions with as much substance and detail as could be reasonably hoped for in the debate format, unlike Trump, who launched off into whatever tangent flaked off his brain at a given moment, typically having to do with allegations of corruption and Biden as an ineffectual career politician whose signature achievement was putting a lot of black people in jail. Biden at times made statements that were misleading or incorrect, but as I said previously about Kamala Harris in her debate, they were of a nature and scope common to campaign rhetoric, properly called out and corrected but qualitatively different from Trump's blithe indifference to truth and fact. Here are a few representative examples from the AP fact check:
Biden said there’s "no evidence" that raising the minimum wage causes business bankruptcies. There is, a little.
Biden claimed Social Security’s chief actuary said if Trump "continues his plan to withhold the tax on Social Security" the program "will be bankrupt by 2023." Trump hasn’t proposed ending the tax without providing alternative funding, the scenario the actuary assessed.
Though Biden claimed Trump’s travel restrictions on China were imposed "late, after 40 countries had already done that," most of those countries did it around the same time Trump did.
Trump accused Biden of receiving "$3.5 million from Russia." There’s no evidence of that.
Trump erred when he said it’s "proven" that a minimum-wage boost would lead to many firings. There’s a chance that the effect could be "about zero," according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Trump falsely said "I don’t take" money from Wall Street. He and groups supporting him got about $13.8 million from Wall Street.
The president falsely claimed that his bank account in China was "closed in 2015." Trump’s own attorney said it remains open.
Trump claimed that the $750 the New York Times reported he paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 was a "filing fee." There is no such fee.
Trump repeated his claim that “we’re rounding the turn” on the pandemic. Cases actually are increasing in many parts of the country.
A Trumpist might charge that these items are cherry-picked to reflect my far left, liberal, radical, socialist bias. I make no bones about my conviction that Trump's reelection will be a catastrophe from which the country may not recover. A Biden presidency carries no guarantees. At least with him we have a chance. My list has the first three Biden items and the first six Trump items on a lengthy AP list that includes far more fact checks on Trump than on Biden for the simple reason that with Trump there were far more dubious statements to check.
Biden could have further distinguished himself from his opponent and helped his case by stating flat out that Trump's framing of the path forward on the pandemic and the economy as a binary choice between locking everything down and opening up fall bore rests on the analysis of a nitwit. Well, "nitwit" is mine. Probably better if Biden termed it a flawed analysis. He could have elaborated about a road ahead that is dark and perilous. The world we knew before February is gone. When or if it will return, and what form that will take, is impossible to say. In the interim, we need a clear policy from the federal government advocating targeted lockdowns where appropriate and providing guidance and resources to open up partially and as safely as possible where that can be done. We will all have to make sacrifices and changes in how we live that we would rather not make. That includes masks and safe distancing for the foreseeable future. It would wonderful if a vaccine or cure or the miracle of herd immunity somehow painlessly achieved were to put it everything right again within a weeks or months, not that everything was right before anywhere but in the mind of Donald Trump. That is I suppose possible, but the probability is exceedingly low. It is foolhardy to count on it.
John Harris at Politico offers an accurate, albeit conventional, take on Biden and his debate performance: "An establishment politician whose instincts are centrist but who is adaptable enough to be a credible representative for a party with ascendant and impatient progressive voices." In the debate, Biden's answers "were often crisp, sometimes a little soggy, but never an oh-no-where’s-he-going-with-this excursion along the Pacific Coast Highway." That seems about right. I would add that he appears to be a basically decent guy. It says something about the moment that this is praiseworthy. As for Trump, he "wouldn’t get an 'A' in presidential comportment from any rigorous grader, but he did OK by the standards of this remedial classroom" (No Debate Disaster). I am less charitable here than Harris but would not quibble too much. As I said at the beginning, the bar is low.
Biden was solid throughout. His closing statement encapsulated a theme that ran throughout his remarks last night: He will be the president of all the people, red states and blue states, Democrats and Republicans. Bringing the country together is I suppose possible, but the probability is exceedingly low. Maybe Biden can at least lower the temperature a bit. It will surely be better to have a president whose instinct is to mend wounds and to foster unity rather than sow the foul seeds of division and discord.
Debate moderator Kristen Welker earned the high marks she got for her performance. In fairness to the moderators at the first presidential debate and the VP debate, she had the advantage of the muted mic. It also appears that Trump got it through his thick skull that his interruptions and bluster did not over well with a lot of people who took in the previous debate, including some whose votes he needs.
In the end Republicans are exultant because Trump did not shoot himself in the foot or other more sensitive parts of his anatomy and Democrats have ample reason to be pleased with Biden. I don't see many hearts and minds being changed. The bigger question between now and election day, and the days after, is how effective efforts at voter suppression will be and what shenanigans will be pulled. I remain anxious.
Memo from the editorial desk: Thanks to my friend GW for reminding me of the Dusty Rhodes video when she shared it on Facebook with an observation comparable to the one made here.
Fact-check references and analysis and commentary that might be of interest
John F. Harris, No Debate Disaster. No National Embarrassment. No One Cares, Politico, October 23, 2020
Steve Inskeep interview, Writer Michael Anton Makes The Case For Why Trump Should Be Reelected, NPR Morning Edition, October 20, 2020
Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, D'Angelo Gore, Jessica McDonald, Angelo Fichera, Saranac Hale Spencer, Rem Rieder, FactChecking the Final 2020 Presidential Debate, FactCheck.org, October 23, 2020
Jonathan V. Last, Trump Doesn’t Poop Pants; "Wins" Debate: So, so, so many lies, The Bulwark, October 23, 2020
Ryan Lizza, Trump's sideshow fizzles out, Politico, October 23, 2020
Richard North Patterson, Beyond the Debate: Trump Is Running on Empty, The Bulwark, October 23, 2020
Katie Robertson, New York Post Published Hunter Biden Report Amid Newsroom Doubts, The New York Times, October 22, 2020
Calvin Woodward, Hope Yen, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, AP FACT CHECK: Falsehoods and fumbles in Trump-Biden debate, AP, October 23, 2020