One candidate attempted to talk about health care and covid-19. The other alleged a deep-state plot involving the Obamas and the Clintons to undermine his power.
I could go on. But you get the picture. Trying to compare Biden and Trump is like comparing apples and existentialism. Biden is a fairly typical, modestly gifted politician. Trump is a once-in-a-lifetime threat to the future of the republic. Those who still support Trump after the debate have made a decision: They want their president to resemble a drunk British football hooligan.
I have needed a stiff drink after some presidential debates, including some I helped the candidate prepare for. Before Tuesday night, I had never required a hot shower, a pint of hand sanitizer and a moment of prayer for the fate of the country.
Actually, my purification ritual was to rewatch the initial debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 — the first ever on live television. Take an hour, if you can, and watch it (as nearly two-thirds of American adults did at the time). You’ll see not only a different era but also a different political culture. The idea of democratic norms can sound abstract. The Kennedy-Nixon debate incarnated them.
First, there was an expectation of argument based on evidence. Yes, the candidates were judged on performance (to Nixon’s detriment). But the purpose of the debate was not primarily performative. Rather, it was to make the case for a certain set of policies, which differ from those of the other party based on a certain set of principles. Some of the discussion — say, on farm overproduction — was yawn-inducing. Which was entirely appropriate to the serious application of differing economic views. The intellectual sum total of interchanges on teachers’ salaries, hydroelectric power and health care for the elderly was truly clarifying. It gave voters an accurate picture of principled disagreement, particularly on the proper role of government in a free society.
Second, there was the assumption of goodwill. Both men took for granted that the other was seeking the good of the country. Their disagreements mainly concerned methods. The introduction of controversial social issues (such as abortion) in later years strained this assumption. But it remains essential to democracy. You can be part of a shared democratic enterprise if you think your opponents are dead wrong. It is nearly impossible if you think them intentionally evil.
Third, there was the conviction that public service is a high calling. Both men saw the presidency as an office involving sobering burdens and high ambitions. The context of the debate, which focused on domestic policy, was a global conflict with the Soviet Union that dramatically increased the gravity and complexity of executive responsibility. Voters in 1960 probably would not have entrusted the presidency to, say, a television personality like Jack Benny. In the decades since the Cold War ended, the stakes of U.S. politics have sometimes seemed lower — low enough for voters to select a raging, prating con man. But then came covid-19, economic chaos and erupting demands for racial equality, and the trivial choice for president has been revealed as a disastrous one.
Fourth, there was the disciplined practice of civility. In private, Kennedy and Nixon were hardly mutual fans. Some of their policy differences ran deep. But they did not view persuasion as a function of volume or rudeness as a sign of passion. “I’m not satisfied” and “I think we can do a better job” were about as wild as the attacks got. This was the reflection of a broad social expectation about proper conduct in formal political events, and a broad social stigma against extravagant public idiocy. This was to be challenged by proto-Trump populist George Wallace, who said: “Hell, we got too much dignity in government now.” Following the Trump-Biden debate, that is a difficult case to make.
This might seem an exercise in nostalgia. But these norms are a guide to the restoration of our politics. There is at least the possibility that a public life that is plummeting into cruelty and crudity will hit bottom and rebound. If the Trump-Biden debate does not constitute that bottom, God help us all.