Welker won Thursday night’s final presidential debate the old-fashioned way, with her professional demeanor, tough questions and a determination, dang it, to get the leader of the free world to play by the rules.
It was Welker’s good fortune (to say nothing of masochist viewers who tuned in to the debate) that President Trump mostly complied for several stretches at a time. The belligerent, probably infectious chaos agent who ruined his first debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Sept. 29 instead used Thursday’s debate to work on his trademark smirk and the chronic display of RBF (Resting Bitch Face) that he saves for those rare occasions when he is forced to listen rather than speak.
Biden made better use of his quiet time during Trump’s disinforming answers, with grimaced smiles of disbelief and displays of CMH (C’mon, Man, Headshake). As Trump launched into one of his final spews, Biden uttered a telling summation of how half the country (or more) feels after all these years of listening to Trump’s bizarro takes on reality:
“Oh God,” Biden said.
No comma between the two words, just: Oh God. (The kind of “Oh God” one emits when knowing, even before the light switch is flipped, that there’s water in the basement again — still.)
America grades its political events on a curve now, where anything that doesn’t completely melt down is regarded as a victory for civil discourse. That’s why the huzzahs for Welker — a woman of color who had to watch as the president looked right past her to scan a sparse, socially distanced audience in the auditorium at Nashville’s Belmont University and declare that he was the least racist person in the whole place.
God bless this moderator, sighs a nation that feels exhausted, listless and wishes only to be anywhere but stuck at home. Around 50 million of us will have already voted by the end of the week, practically rendering a late October debate pointless in the worst way. Trump may claim to have been “cured” of the novel coronavirus, but there is no better cure for the malaise that is the 2020 election than to have received that simple little text that your vote has been received and accepted; to know, truly, that you were free to watch anything, anything else. It’s a sense — albeit a fleeting one — of floating above all this madness.
If you have voted, it made Thursday’s show (even Welker called it “the show” in her opening remarks) difficult to parse. The fact-checkers by now must look like extras from “The Walking Dead,” relentless in their pursuit of brainy material, yet desiccated by the toil, a shell of their former, vital selves. The issues discussed (climate, race — and even immigration, at long last) seemed to take on an increasingly abstract quality. Now it’s just about Trump — flailing, angry, always put-upon, always blameless — and Biden, the lifelong public servant trying to get his fellow Americans to act on what he desperately hopes is their better nature.
As both a work of television and occasion to inform voters, debates are still the worst. It’s hard anymore to remember on a Friday what happened on a Tuesday, but one hopes that we’ll always remember how 2020 taught us that televised events should be malleable in format. There’s a real art to virtual connection and interaction — as seen with recent live award shows and the political conventions, and it’s too bad we didn’t get to try it in this election.
The hubbub around the addition of Thursday’s mute button by the Commission on Presidential Debates indicates that the viewing public is hungry for a new kind of TV debate, with new rules that will acknowledge, for better and for worse, what kind of democracy we’ve become.