intelligencer chats

The Debate Guardrails Were a Gift for Trump

Why is this man (sort of) smiling? Photo: Getty Images

Though exceeding the standards of the surreal first presidential debate was not necessarily a difficult task, Thursday night’s event felt like an accomplishment. President Trump and Joe Biden engaged in normal-ish back-and-forth, moderator Kristen Welker kept things moving, and viewers came away un-traumatized, if not necessarily more informed. I spoke with Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi to get her takeaways from the evening.

Ben: During the final presidential debate, President Trump was considerably sharper than last time around. He was his typical mendacious, blustery self, but seemed to take someone’s advice about not interrupting constantly, and, at least before he lapsed into Fox News speak, delivered a relatively restrained (key word: relatively!) version of his pitch. However, Joe Biden was also much sharper than the first time around — perhaps the most coherent he’s been throughout this entire election cycle. And he was arguing much more popular positions on seemingly every topic, from coronavirus strategy to the minimum wage to child separation. With the caveat that the debate is unlikely to shake up the race, do you think either candidate particularly helped or hurt themselves tonight?

Olivia: No. I see some idiotic commentary about Trump’s “new tone” tonight. That’s obviously never been true, any time any pundit has said it at any point over the five and a half years since Trump announced his candidacy. And overall I don’t think that even his most effective riffs attacking Biden will have any real impact. Unless there’s a secret Borat videotape of Biden sprawled on a bed, it’s just too late to negatively define him in a new way. He’s been a famous politician for like half a century.

Ben: Still, might someone who has some fondness for Trump — and who watched the first debate and was horrified by his performance — might be comforted enough by this relatively (again, relatively!) normal-ish showing to cast off their doubt about voting for him?

Olivia: It’s certainly possible! I think having guardrails on the debate probably helped Trump in the end, the same way that cable news refusing to air his coronavirus briefings in full helped him, or that refusing to air his rallies in full helps him. I’ve made this argument more coherently than I’m about to make it while having a drink after suffering through a debate, but basically my theory is this: By preventing Trump from speaking in his naturally rambling and insane-sounding way, either through not airing his commentary in full or by imposing strict rules as was the case this evening, we have the unintended effect of making him sound more coherent than he is. With the briefings or the rallies, reporters relate the important moments from the events to viewers or readers rather than making them sit through it all for themselves. This means we sometimes articulate for Trump something that sounds like a clear belief or worldview when in fact he does not have either. Sitting through unfiltered Trump — which I have done for the last five-plus years — is an insane experience, and it’s much harder to discern policy ideas you might agree with when you have to pick stray sentences out of his unfiltered speech yourself. But unfortunately there is no way to have a semi-normal debate unless guardrails are imposed, as we saw with the first debate.

Ben: Reviews were largely positive for the moderator, Kristen Welker, who the Trump team had tried to paint as biased toward the president (as is their wont). How do you think she did?

Olivia: I think she was great. She’s a sharp and poised reporter and also a reporter’s reporter. She’s someone who is kind to you if you’re in a gaggle together. I think that’s part of why the rest of the press corps mobilized as we did to defend her, even though it wouldn’t matter if she sucked at her job — the way they attacked her would still be egregious. But part of the problem with going after someone in an unfair and dishonest way and making them out to be a partisan hack/monster is that you lower expectations for their performance, and when they show up and they’re not a partisan hack/monster, you look very stupid. In some way, this is precisely the problem the Trump campaign created for itself with Biden, too. They spent months trying to depict him as so old and addled that he’s basically dead, and then he shows up onstage and he’s alive and even if he stutters a little bit or whatever, he still so exceeds the low expectations set for him by his opposition that he emerges looking pretty good in the end.

Ben: I remember the old days, when Republican campaigns would try to portray their opponents like Al Gore or John Kerry as the greatest debaters in human history. That seemed a little smarter.

Olivia: But that would require Trump acknowledging, however disingenuously, the possibility that he could be weaker than Biden in some respect. He is incapable of having the foresight to abide by such a strategy.

Unrelated, but I see Rick Santorum, famous idiot and bad person, has tried in the CNN postgame commentary to make Biden glancing at his watch an issue, à la George H.W. Bush. But aside from that being stupid — as the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out, it was a big deal Bush did that because it was the first town hall, so it appeared Bush was bored by normal people — it misjudges the emotional reaction most people, including his supporters, have to Donald Trump. His biggest fans get bored of him, too. I was with a volunteer for his campaign recently who describes herself as a part of his “base” who told me she won’t sit through his rallies or speeches, that it’s easier to accept him in the abstract. And even those who do wait in line for hours to go to a rally often leave while he’s still speaking. And they laugh, even when he’s not telling an obvious joke. Because he’s fucking funny! That’s why I thought Biden was so effective when he laughed as Trump spoke, because it speaks to Trump supporters or sympathizers who do the same thing — as well as to people who oppose him and laugh at his insanity even as it makes them want to scream.

The Debate Guardrails Were a Gift for Trump