the national circus

Frank Rich: Should the First Presidential Debate Also Be the Last?

An affair to forget. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, last night’s presidential debate.

The mainstream media has called Tuesday night’s debate “a chaotic disaster,” “a disgusting moment for democracy,” “a display of a president’s testosterone-fueled, unmanaged rage and insecurity,” and, in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper, “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck … a disgrace.” There are two more presidential debates scheduled, but should the first also be the last?

Pardon me for not being among the pious liberals who are calling for Joe Biden to withdraw from the remaining debates on the grounds that the first was a travesty. Not that the next two debates won’t also be travesties: Any efforts now to try to enforce the rules that Trump broke last night are doomed to failure. A president who has brazenly broken the law throughout his private and public careers is hardly going to be restrained by get-tough tactics imposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. He’ll mock them and their strictures much as he has the E.U., the World Health Organization, the CDC, the FBI, and any other institution you can name.

But Biden must show up regardless because (a) his brand is to respect institutions and reform them from within, and (b) hard as it may be to imagine, the next two debates are going to be more self-immolating for Trump than the first. It’s the incumbent who has the most to gain from shutting down the rest of the debate schedule, not Biden.

How, you ask, could Trump possibly be in worse form than the bullying and incoherent thug who showed up last night? The answer is simple: He won’t have only Biden to kick around anymore. Debate No. 2, moderated by Steve Scully of C-Span, is a “town-hall style” event — a format in which the empathic Scranton Joe excels but which, as we’ve recently seen, shines a harsh light on the cocooned president’s utter inability to listen to ordinary voters as well as his propensity for condescending to them if not dismissing them outright. Then comes Debate No. 3, less than two weeks before Election Day, in which the moderator is NBC News’ Kristen Welker. Welker is a woman of color: exactly the kind of news-media professional who, as we’ve seen in countless press conferences, is most likely to trigger Trump’s racism, misogyny, and Vesuvian rage.

Voters may be tempted to tune in en masse for that finale. But it’s more likely that the ratings will decline from last night’s. With the exceptions of the Proud Boys and other white supremacists whom Trump empowered to commit violence, who is the audience that wants to return for another temper tantrum by the toddler-in-chief? A gaggle of undecided voters rounded up on cable news last night was so dumbstruck by what they’d seen that the overwhelming majority kept their hands in their laps when asked to pick a favorite candidate. I found myself identifying with James Carville, who on CNN said, “I’m basically paid to watch it, and it was a struggle to get through 90 minutes of it.”

The bipartisan consensus that emerged overnight was that there was no winner, and that America was the loser. The latter judgment is true, for once again an American president had soiled a political norm and once again he had provided propaganda fodder for all American foes eager to portray the United States as a corrupt sham rather than a stable democracy. But there was a winner of sorts: Biden. Right through debate day, Fox News was still pushing the line that Trump’s opponent was a doddering victim of dementia, the proof being the unproven and untrue accusation that he’d be wearing an earpiece on stage. “I don’t think there is any doubt Biden is senile,” was the way the Fox “analyst” Brit Hume put it more than once. You’d think that after the Democratic National Convention, where Biden’s crisp acceptance speech destroyed the credibility of Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” line of attack, Trump and company would have the discipline to not lower expectations for Biden’s performance again. But Trump is incapable of self-discipline. In recent weeks he has baselessly accused his opponent of using mind-enhancing drugs, but last night it was an undecided voter, Ruthie from Pennsylvania, who told the focus-group maven Frank Luntz that debating Trump was like trying to “win an argument with a crackhead.” Trump interrupted and talked over his foe so constantly that there was nary a pause for Biden to even deliver one of his legendary “gaffes” had he been so inclined.

No one would argue that Biden was particularly lively or that he had said anything memorable beyond his impassioned defenses of both his sons. But simply by being a sentient adult and showing off a sense of humor (and smile), he bested Trump. Television, lest we forget, is still foremost a visual medium. Less attentive viewers could size up the two men by turning off the volume and watching their faces and posture without listening to a word either said. In those visual sweepstakes, Trump also didn’t help himself by evincing a Nixon-level sweat.

Unless you believe that all polling is a hoax, the presidential race has been steady for months, with Biden ahead in most battleground states and competitive in states like Georgia that the Republicans should have locked down. That polling also indicates, as James Hohmann of the Washington Post put it this week, “that 2020 will probably see the largest gender gap of any presidential election since the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote a century ago.” Trump’s mission last night was to persuade at least some of those wavering “suburban housewives,” as he calls them, to give him another look. And what did they see? The joke about our last one-term president, the patrician and sometimes pissy George H.W. Bush, was that he reminded women “of their first husband.” The flushed, ranting, and scowling Trump burst through the screen like a frat-house date rapist.

The bottom line, then, is that like most past debates, this one probably won’t shake up the presidential race — though it is likely to further wound Republican Senate incumbents like Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, and Thom Tillis (among others) who are fighting for their lives in blue or purple states and will have to defend another round of Trump ugliness. But the Vichy Republicans are no more apt to defect now than before; it’s long past the time when they could have credibly or productively jumped ship.

And so Republican officials nationwide will rally to support the bunker campaign strategy Trump outlined last night in a rare moment of truthfulness. That strategy calls for him to use every tool he can, from intimidating voters at polling places to inciting civil violence to indefinitely tying up the vote in the courts, to halt and invalidate an election he knows he and his party can’t win. In that sense, his not-unsuccessful effort to halt and invalidate a debate he was ill-prepared to win last night was nothing if not a small preview of coming attractions. Every time you think 2020 can’t get worse, it does.

Frank Rich: Should the First Trump-Biden Debate Be the Last?