Yes, I know senior TV and newspaper political analysts declared the debate “a disgusting moment for democracy”; a “disgrace to the format, an insult to the country”; “completely disrespect[ful] to the millions of Americans who tuned in”; and “horrible for America and democracy.” Outlets abroad poured on the schadenfreude (“the candidates behaved [as badly as] their voters,” the Russian state TV channel concluded proudly), while in the New York Times, several people reiterated the suggestion — an idea that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had earlier pushed — that Biden “should refuse to participate in the remaining scheduled debates unless some degree of decorum is returned” and that “there should be a mute button.” A “petition to mute” Trump got more than 100,000 likes on Twitter.
These critiques rest on the presumption that our usual “decorous” debates are a sacrosanct institution that’s crucial to the democratic process. But that’s a complete fantasy. Myriad studies have long shown that debates between general-election presidential candidates make virtually no difference to the electoral outcome. In fact, the only televised debate historians agree probably did make a big difference was the first one between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 — perhaps because it was a novel kind of showdown and, like this week’s debate, tore up previous rules of engagement in a way many contemporaneous commentators found deeply disheartening.
The candidate that people believe “lost” the debates has gone on to win the general election just as often as vice versa. In 1984, analysts asserted that Walter Mondale trounced Ronald Reagan in their debate; in 2012, polls declared Mitt Romney the decisive winner of his first debate against President Barack Obama, and more than two-thirds of major poll respondents in 2016 believed Hillary Clinton won her debates against Trump. “Hillary Clinton’s 3 Debate Performances Left Trump’s Campaign in Ruins,” Vox concluded in mid-October 2016.
When we consider the fact that debates don’t make a difference, we tend to indict American voters: that they don’t appreciate a great art form or the democratic process; that they’re unintellectual, rigidly partisan or shallow in their political analysis. Really, though, our debates’ marginal impact is an indictment of modern televised debates as such. Far from being showpieces of civil disagreement, they are typically tremendously boring and scripted, a couple of hours of 90-second infomercials packed with platitudes and false claims that are barely ever challenged because the candidates can’t effectively converse with each other. What’s called “decorum” is, in reality, a rigid, artificially serene format that all but guarantees the candidates show no passion, “play by the rules,” and don’t spar with each other but fastidiously address the moderator. And the tremendous amount of work campaigns usually do to prefabricate all of their candidates’ responses means our debates have come to look less and less like any kind of political conversation that real people have with each other — which are, now, often intense and emotional, given the serious topics they address — and more and more like two salespeople consecutively presenting questionable wares in upbeat tones on the Home Shopping Channel.
Thus, our typical debates only deepen the impression that American politicians are detached and slick, suppressing much of what they are really thinking and doing. In the past, the role of the disrupter has been played, at times, by ordinary people, as it did in a 1992 “town hall” in which a questioner needled then-President George H.W. Bush:
“How can you find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?” the audience member asked.
“I think the national debt affects everybody,” Bush began.
“You. You,” the questioner interrupted him. “How has it affected you?”
“Well, I’m sure it has. I love my grandchildren — ”
In this week’s debate, Trump attempted to play the role of disrupter. Perhaps he bought into the false right-wing talking point that Biden has dementia and might fall apart if not fed prompts he was expecting. Not only did that tactic fail spectacularly — it was Trump who looked manic, sweaty and ill — but the viewer got a sense of Biden’s character that has never been effectively revealed this year before the debate: his perceptiveness; his ability to speak plainly off the cuff and when provoked; his feeling for and knowledge of this country’s complexities; and the real depth of his feelings for his two, very different sons.
Trump’s efforts to push Biden off balance actually served Biden, because he was shaken out of his reliance on boilerplate lines. Friends of mine had prepared a game for the debate in which they would drink every time Biden said some variant of “I’m the guy” — i.e. “I’m the guy who got health care done.” They were anticipating a festive evening because, by my count, during the Democratic primary debates Biden employed this phrase several dozen times. But on Tuesday, he said it only once. He basically dropped his old chestnuts about Scranton, Pa., to articulate more real and normal descriptions of the America of which he’d take stewardship if he were elected: “This is not 1950. There are as many people today driving their kids to soccer practice with Black and White and Hispanic in the same car as there have been at any time in the past.” Despite his reputation as a “gaffe machine,” Biden generated few YouTube-worthy “gaffes” — the only source of entertainment during presidential debates most years — because he actually stumbles most dramatically when trying to remember a canned talking point.
Some of the calls to boycott future debates rest on the idea that Biden was bullied and that this should be prevented, either for Biden’s sake or to protect America’s reputation. One of Wednesday’s most human moments came near the end when — under one of Trump’s most unhinged strafings — Biden just closed his eyes for several seconds. It gave the impression he might be briefly thinking: Why is this happening to me? In 2020 I was going to be inaugurating Joseph R. Biden middle schools in Delaware and playing with my grandchildren. But Biden doesn’t need our pity. He consistently held his ground, as he had to; this is the reality, Trump is our president. While the debate was uncomfortable to watch, the American people absolutely should be exposed to their president when he’s not completely in control, as he is during news conferences or on his Twitter feed.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Trump’s own efforts to exert dominance pushed him off balance and into more glaring contortions and contradictions. A friend of mine who voted for Trump in 2016 text-messaged me: “Trump is badly misbehaving and uncontrolled.” He is a badly behaved and uncontrolled man; his public persona outside of a debate may partly disguise this truth. And amid his lack of control came an interesting tell. Discussing his intent to seat a new justice on the Supreme Court, Trump said, “We have plenty of time. Even if we did it after the election itself, I have a lot of time after the election, as you know.” My Trump-supporting friend and I both took that as a slip. He’s talking about his lame-duck period. Trump appears to believe he’ll be defeated. Perhaps he even knows he ought to be defeated.
More revelations like that one can come with more debates. Chris Wallace, the moderator, should not have cut Trump’s mic, but frankly pointed out that he was the one turning the debate into chaos — as he did. It was completely revealing, more than perhaps any other presidential debate I’ve seen, and I would — and will — watch more of them.