Last night Biden and Trump faced off in the first debate of the 2020 Presidential Campaign. Biden was the clear winner in my eyes. Other commentators have written the debate off as a disappointment, “America lost tonight” is the emerging consensus. They point to the moderator’s inability to control the debate from descending into insults and attacks. This misunderstands what was at stake.
The debate was Biden’s to lose. He is in the lead – 538’s aggregate poll gives him a 78% chance of winning. Debate’s tend not to have much effect on polls, so Trump needed to provoke a massive mistake from Biden. There were grounds for Biden supporters to be worried. He has been trailed by accusations of senility, and a series of embarrassing verbal gaffes have done little to assuage concerns he may not be up to the job. The danger was Trump might bamboozle Biden, leaving him looking frail and confused.
Trump’s tactic was what we’ve come to expect: inject 50cc of pure chaos and hope your opponent has a seizure. It was less effective than in 2016, precisely because we have come to expect it; his braggadocio, lies, and narcissistic self-confidence are tired memes, not shocking news. His opponents have also learnt playing nice or trying to be above it does not pay off, Trump must be fought.
Biden did not look senile, he did not look shaky, he did not collapse into a stuttering mess, and that was all he had to do. He got a little flustered initially, but also carried the fight to Trump – in one memorable line he told him to shut up. He addressed his messages to the camera, trying to speak to the American people. Trump spent most of the 90 minutes looking over at Biden sniping.
I doubt the debate changed the minds of any supporters, but again, that’s not the point really. Biden’s risk was that the doubts swirling around him would crystallise on stage in some horrific misstep. He avoided that, and will hopefully continue his march to the White House.
As a postscript, the most disappointing parts of the debate for me were when Biden disowned the Green New Deal or Medicare For All to fend off Trump’s accusation he was in the pocket of the “radical left” (imagine somewhere the vision for radical politics is so impoverished). It was a transparent attempt to drive a wedge between Bernie and Biden, but apart from some recalcitrant holdovers, I hope no one on the left is still holding out for the Gotterdammerung of 4 more years of Trump.
It is a pet peeve of mine when someone interrupts a heated discussion and suggests talking about something else, usually the weather or someone’s holiday to Japan.
Montaigne talks a lot about fierce debate in his wonderful ‘On the Art of Conversation.’ He believed it to be essential to real friendship:
I like strong, intimate, manly fellowships, the kind of friendship which rejoices in sharp vigorous exchanges just as love rejoices in bites and scratches which draw blood. It is not strong enough nor magnanimous enough if it is not argumentative, if all is politeness and art
As a result, he was well acquainted with the characters that make up these vigorous exchanges:
One goes east and the other west; they lose the fundamental point in the confusion of a mass of incidentals. After a tempestuous hour they no longer know what they are looking for. One man is beside the bull’s eye, the other too high, the other too low. One fastens on a word or a comparison; another no longer sees his opponent’s arguments, being too caught up in his own train of thought: he is thinking pursuing his own argument not yours. Another, realizing he is too weak in the loins, is afraid of everything, denies everything and, from the outset, muddles and confuses the argument, or else, at the climax of the debate he falls into a rebellious total silence, affecting, out of morose ignorance, a haughty disdain or an absurdly modest desire to avoid contention. Yet another does not care how much he drops his own guard provided that he can hit you. Another counts every word and believes they are as weight as reasons. This man merely exploits the superior power of his voice and lungs. And then there is the man who sums up against himself; and the other who deafens you with useless introductions and digressions. Another is armed with pure insults and picks a groundless ‘German quarrel’ so as to free himself from the company and conversation of a mind which presses hard on his own. Lastly, there is the man who cannot see reason but holds you under siege within a hedge of dialectical conclusions and logical formulae.
Apart from the oddness of a ‘German quarrel’ – all the Germans I know are painfully polite, especially when apologizing for their perfect English – the descriptions are eerily familiar. No?