Three old white guys walk into a bar. That sounds like the beginning of a classic joke. But altered to three septuagenarian white guys walk onto a presidential debate stage, it’s not a joke at all. And that’s what happened this week.
I’m willing to flirt with presumption in the pursuit of insight to look at the 100 minutes in which “the US embarrassed itself before the world,” as described by The Times of India. Or “The night American democracy hit rock bottom” as a BBC headline called it.
Moderating what Dana Bash called a “shitshow” live on CNN was Chris Wallace, a Peabody award winning journalist and son of news icon Mike Wallace. The younger Mr. Wallace is a veteran of both presidential debates and Trump interviews, having moderated the last debate of 2016 as well as the noteworthy interview last July in which Trump was fact-checked on camera by Wallace. Presumably, he was prepared to deal with the job at hand and the mercurial Trump.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has had presidential ambitions for well over thirty years. It was a pipe dream in 1988 and in 2008 as well as all the years in between. After two terms in the number two spot under President Obama, it looked like Biden might finally be positioned in 2016. But the death of his son Beau in May 2015 interrupted any advance he was considering at that time.
Getting back in the fray in April 2019, Vice President Biden was ahead of the crowded Democratic field nationally leading up to the first primary contests, but he failed to convert that advantage into early wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. His decisive win in South Carolina changed the political landscape dramatically and quickly, and he would finally become the Democratic presidential candidate.
With a national lead hovering around 8% and state level polls indicating an Electoral College advantage, the strategy going into the first debate must have been predicated on the medical, and sometimes political, concept of “first, do no harm.” That is much easier said than done. Undoubtedly, Vice President Biden came to the stage with the best messaging and scripting that Democratic donor dollars could buy. That coupled with the knowledge that the portion of the electorate he would be seeking to appeal to is hungry for the “presidential” presence that has been so sorely missing in the time of Trump, his job was set.
Back at the White House, the maelstrom that defines the Trump administration (and much of his life before) continues to rage. Revelations about tax returns hit close to home. COVID-19 continues to kill and infect the American people. For Trump, the numbers are not looking good.
Now the numbers I’m talking about are not 750 or 200,000. Trump has shown us that winning by his definition is about money, ratings, and polls. And he’s not doing well on any of them.
Typically, an incumbent race for reelection starts with where one finishes. Having successfully threaded the needle to win the Electoral College in 2016, Trump need only replicate success in those states. But four of them (Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) are leaning Democratic now.
As a former casino owner, Trump surely understands what it means when the odds aren’t in one’s favor. He likely may keep one of them, but losing three of them is the ballgame—even if he holds the four current toss-ups (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio) he won last time. (That’s a big “if.)
With fundraising numbers increasingly favoring his opponent, Trump walked on that debate stage (no doubt in Cuban heels) intent on doing what he arguably does better than anyone. He changed the narrative. He would see to it that we wouldn’t be talking about his taxes, his former campaign manager, or anything else come Wednesday morning. We would be talking about his debate performance. And so we were. All around the world.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, Mr. Wallace or Vice President Biden did or said would have prevented the end result. Thinking otherwise is akin to holding a wife responsible for the philandering of the husband or any other “blame the victim” game we too often see played.
Trump seemingly had one other objective that he’s been pushing. If Plan A (to win the election) doesn’t work, execute Plan B (invalidate the election results by contesting those results all the way to a Trump-packed Supreme Court). But that plan is a complete misreading of what happened in 2000.
That year it all came down to the voting in a single state—Florida. What exactly could Trump do? Challenge the results in multiple states? Maybe Ohio? And Florida? And North Carolina? Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin? How about Arizona? As many states as he would need to fill in the deficit? To quote someone else on that stage, “Come on, man.”
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read news from the BBC, and I am a committed Anglophile (portraits of the six wives of Henry VIII are peering down on me from the walls as I write this). But that BBC headline I mentioned earlier is entirely too optimistic. Our British cousins who think our democracy has hit rock bottom better hold on to their gin and tonics.