Last Tuesday, the first presidential debate was held between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Given the incredibly precarious state of the country currently, the goal for both candidates was to appear stable, confident and capable of handling the ongoing crises. Neither of them succeeded.
Trump was notably aggressive in tone, interrupting Biden so much he was often unable to finish sentences. Ironically, this may have actually helped Biden; the sentences Trump was interrupting seemed to be trailing off and lacking any central point. If Biden were allowed to talk uninterrupted for two minutes at a time, it would be glaringly lacking in real policy proposal or planning. Trump was also aggressive towards the moderator, Chris Wallace, saying “I guess I’m debating you, not [Biden].” This behavior is generally expected from Trump at debates, though it was especially egregious this time around.
Another of Trump’s repeated tactics was to force Biden to choose between accepting the supposed radical elements of the Democratic Party — Sanders and company — or rejecting their proposals. Trump would tell Biden he just “lost the left” when he rejected this wing of the Party, but still insisted that the radicals ultimately controlled Biden and that his presidency would be socialist in nature. It’s an obvious contradiction, but nobody really cares. Biden is obviously not controlled by the radical left — many supposed radical leftist congresspeople are actually under greater control by the Democratic establishment — but it lets Trump fear monger his socialist-terrified base.
As for Biden’s strategy, it’s honestly hard to even say. He was at least capable of forming coherent sentences, which was a big question going into this debate, but the sentences themselves were pretty meaningless. A solid majority of his speaking time was dedicated to simply tearing down Trump’s policies and public statements. Granted, plenty of his statements are ridiculous and difficult to not confront, but refusing to offer any real reason to vote for Biden isn’t exactly a winning electoral strategy.
Biden did make some solid points about a K-shaped economic recovery from COVID-19, pointing out the increase in wealth the ultra-wealthy have seen these last few months. He proposed a slight increase in the corporate tax rate. But his stances on almost every other issue, when he bothered to offer a stance, were practically empty. He gestured vaguely at “holding accountable” police officers without any commitment to direct change. He strongly rejected support for the Green New Deal and didn’t seem to grasp the existential threat climate change poses. Biden didn’t confront the massive ongoing unemployment and poverty crisis with any real proposals. It is absolutely impossible to see Joe Biden as in tune to the political currents of the present situation.
Of course, maybe the debates don’t even matter at all. Clinton was generally perceived to be the winner of the 2016 debates. Even if the debate wasn’t such a mess, it would be pretty hard to see it actually changing anyone’s mind. Trump will continue to direct his ultra-reactionary mass and Biden will continue to rely on people holding their nose and voting for him. Trump might just cheat the election by invalidating mail-in ballots anyway, and it really doesn’t look like the Democrats have any real plan to prevent this.
National politics are so ingrained in our daily culture at this point that a debate can only occupy a tiny space in the political minds of Americans, regardless of how important it may be. Our national attention span for news is so short that it feels like only the news within 48 hours of the election will even matter. Of course, it’s hard to expect people to attach any lasting importance to political news when the politicians in power are completely uninterested in disrupting systemic and material issues.