Well. I need a shower. That was a disgusting event, and we all know why. It’s been said a million times, but it’s never been truer than on this night: Donald Trump drags everything down to his level. And the moderator let him. That was the most shocking and pathetic moderator performance that we’ve ever seen.
I can’t imagine Trump helped himself with that performance. I suspect that to regular voters, he just looked rude or worse, in failing to denounce white supremacy and railing on about Hunter Biden. Fox went gaga over that performance, of course, but I think most of non-Fox America was appalled by Trump. In fact, I think most of America will wonder why there even ought to be two more debates, if they’re going to be like this.
That said, Biden missed a few hanging curveballs over the plate. There were a handful of moments when Trump actually let him talk, and when that happened, Biden could have shut Trump’s histrionics down and more or less ended this race, but he couldn’t quite do it. I have three key occasions in mind.
The first was on COVID. The obvious place for Biden to start was: remember, folks, he said it was one person, it was 11 people, it was 15 people soon to be down to one, it will go away like a miracle. He did mention the infamous Easter Sunday claim, and he got in a good shot on injecting bleach into your arm, and that was good, but I’m not sure it was enough.
And he didn’t respond forcefully enough when Trump dragged out that charge that Biden called closing travel from China xenophobic. The fact-checkers have rated that mostly false, but Biden didn’t answer it well enough. In sum, he should have wiped the floor with Trump on this topic, and he didn’t.
Second, Trump’s taxes. Again, he worked it in, the $750 tax payment, and he worked in the mention of that being less than what a teacher pays. But the pivot to “I’ll eliminate those loopholes he took advantage of” was the wrong pivot. The right pivot: “Mr. President, that’s where you’re wrong. Every single rich person does not look for every single shady way to get their tax bill down to zero. Most rich people, like most middle-class people, don’t like paying taxes, but grudgingly accept that they’re contributing to the nation’s defense, its system of law, its national parks, and so on. So no, sir—everybody does not do it.”
The third was on race and crime. Here, oddly, Biden gave answers that might turn off both left and center, to use the superficial labels. Trump’s attack on Biden over the 1994 crime bill was effective and one of the few moments when he wasn’t lying his head off. Biden needed to be ready for that and to say: “My record on civil rights over the years dwarfs yours, sir. Not even close. My name has been on more civil rights laws than almost any other senator in recent history.” That shuts down that line of argument.
Finally, the white supremacist moment. OK, so Trump lies all the time, but some lies are just beyond the pale, and even in the heat of the moment, especially in the heat of the moment, a nominee has to be able to recognize the beyond-the-pale lies and think to himself, “Aha! Now I pounce.”
The pounce was this: FBI Director Chris Wray said just last week that white right-wing terrorism is much the bigger problem than antifa. In addition to that—and this is something most of America doesn’t understand but needs to—antifa “activists” see basically no difference between Biden and Trump. They are hard leftists, anarchists. They don’t want Joe Biden to be president. They want the very presidency smashed. Biden should have said: “Here’s the difference. Those left-wing extremists? They hate me. They think I’m a sellout. Go ask them. But those right-wing extremists? They love the president. Go ask them. That’s the difference.”
I’m not attacking Biden here. I can imagine how hard it was in real time to encounter what he encountered.
And that is the main point here, Biden’s missed swings notwithstanding. Trump’s behavior tonight was not just generally shocking. It was democratically shocking. It’s now a legitimate question as to whether there should even be two more debates. What’s the point, if they’re polluted to this extent?
No American politician is supposed to behave that way. David Plouffe put it well on MSNBC shortly after it ended. It was as if, Plouffe said, Trump was thinking to himself: “Putin doesn’t have to go through these debates! Why should I?”
Well, most of us know why. Because this is a democracy. If barely. Chris Wallace did nothing tonight to protect democracy. He helped let it die. I recall a number of occasions when liberals have said with pleasant surprise, “Hey, Wallace is respectable!” Well, he wasn’t respectable tonight. He was a disgrace. Steve Scully and Kristen Welker, moderators of the next two presidential debates, if they happen, must be gulping. The Biden people could do far worse than start Wednesday morning on TV by arguing that Scully ought to have a cut-off switch.
I’m sad that Biden didn’t handle those three moments (and a couple others) better; if he had, this would be over. But I’m sadder that, once again, Trump has ticked another box of democracy destruction. Why am I not surprised?