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.