Call me crazy, but I’m fine with last night’s debate.
The chattering class is aghast. The American people were the big losers because of the pathetic spectacle, we’re told. On the left, on the right, everyone’s expressing shock and dismay and sadness at the darkness and chaos of it all. What were they expecting? A polite and respectful exchange of thoughtful position papers?
Not me. The result is all that matters, and it worked out just fine.
Not the Twitter @realDonaldTrump. No, I’m talking about the live one, the insecure, psychotic, wannabe dictator suffering from a mental illness known as narcissistic personality disorder. The incompetent lout whose reelection would jeopardize the future of our nation and the world. Yeah, that one. We got to see him with his makeup smeared.
Yes, it was ugly and unpleasant, much like watching a political exorcism. But former Vice President Joe Biden handled his supporting role with calm, and he calibrated just about the right measure of disdain. That’s about as close as we’re going to get to presidential.
It’s hard to imagine that Trump netted a single new voter with his customary pouting and grievance politics. His grade-school-playground demeanor might suit the role of political disrupter, but there are too many Americans cooped up with their kids or otherwise freaked out about their future to be comforted by that act in the year 2020.
What a contrast to 2016, when Trump was able to bully Hilary Clinton, perhaps owing in good part to systemic sexism. Last night, Biden--despite whatever weaknesses might hinder his candidacy--was the alpha male on the stage.
Trump was left to play the fat little rich kid pouting with a freakishly extended lower lip demanding that the butler come fetch him to the mansion at once. This wasn’t a great look to that legendary base as the squirming Fox News commentators seemed to signal with their less-than-enthusiastic post-fight analysis.
All Biden needed from last night was not to get hit. He’s no stranger to self-inflicted wounds, but it would be unfair to underestimate how well he handled the largest stage of a career spanning nearly half a century.
Biden was largely gaffe-free and easily laid to rest Trump’s self-projecting false narrative that Biden might be as feeble of mind and unstable as he is. Fox News Reprobate Tucker Carlson had offered up his most squinty-eyed fake astonishment, in the leadup to the debate, that Biden had shown up at all.
That narrative is as dead as Rudy Guiliani’s erstwhile dark threats to bring down the House of Biden with dirt from Rudy’s small-time-gangster counterparts from the underbelly of Ukraine. Although one must never underestimate what sort of October surprise might be dialed up by Vladimir Putin, the old material is stale.
Biden might even have picked up a point or two to pad the reasonably healthy leads he’s holding in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. To the extent that the fate of humanity might hinge on the suburbs of those states, nothing transpired last night to help Trump. If Biden can just hold on in the Rust Belt, it’s game over.
It’s a common mistake in the polarized world of our politics to preach to the respective choirs. On the left, the biggest headlines of the night reported Trump’s persistent refusal to condemn white supremacy, but that’s akin to the sun rising in the east. The 42 percent swath of Americans who have supported Trump have done so with full knowledge of his racism.
Conversely, some of the more fanatical wingnuts in Sean Hannity’s fiendish orbit were trying to convince themselves that Trump’s boorishness was a clarion call to the base. In their telling, Trump brilliantly conned Biden into distancing himself from the progressive wing of his party--as if he hadn’t already--and that somehow the likes of Bernie Sanders and AOC would suddenly decide to sit upon their hands as a result.
Good luck with that strategy. Biden needs just to keep plodding along, focusing on voter turnout and deployment of an army of election-law experts and seasoned observers to prevent Trump and his enablers from stealing the election. Trump again offered without apology at the debate that he’ll give that a spin.
Meanwhile, Democrats need to call off the talk about skipping the remaining scheduled debates. Kamala Harris should sweep the floor next week with Vice President Mike Pence, who couldn’t possibly have drawn a worse matchup. With no disrespect to Tim Kaine, Pence wants nothing to do with a woman of color who’s a lot smarter than he is.
As for the two remaining presidential debates, bring them on, but this time, let’s not obsess about how disconcerting they are to watch. Sure, it’s cringeworthy and unsettling to take in, but not merely so much as the nightmare of Trump’s presidency itself.
The presidential debates provide the one forum in which Trump doesn’t control the podium and the news cycle. He doesn’t get to decide who to call upon and who to abuse. In short, he doesn’t get to do whatever he wants, the organizing principle of his entire life.
It isn’t pretty to watch, but it’s working. Joe Biden shouldn’t change a thing.
Ray Hartmann is a columnist for The Riverfront Times, the St. Louis alternative newsweekly he founded in 1977 at the age of 24. He has been a panelist for 33 years on Donnybrook, a political discussion show on the local PBS affiliate in St. Louis and hosts a two-hour nightly radio show.