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Calm Down, The Debate Was Fine

While it was not civil, the first presidential debate was compelling and informative.


The American news media has fallen in a tizzy onto its fainting couch after watching two old dudes bicker for 90 minutes Tuesday night. CNN’s Jake Tapper declared that it was “not a debate, it was a disgrace!” “Nasty!” said the cover the New York Post.

And yeah, it was a little nasty, but so what? This isn’t middle school debate club. The important thing isn’t actually that everyone comport themselves in a civil manner. The important thing is who should be the next president.

My only big quibble with Tuesday night’s big fight was moderator Chris Wallace’s micromanaging. Both President Trump and Joe Biden were game to scrap. Once that was clear, Wallace should have let them just have at it. A good boxing referee knows when to step in and more importantly when not to. We should see more direct exchanges between Trump and Biden, not fewer.

On Wednesday the Committee for Presidential Debates, which sets the rules for the spectacles, announced that it would be looking into changes in those rules owing to the free for all that the debate became. But why? By limiting the time that candidates can directly interact all you do is open up more time for the same prepackaged answers to questions that we already see on TV ads.

Think about the fact that it is big news now when the presidential debate moderators are announced. We are trained to simply assume that whoever it is will have an outsized impact on the perceived result. That in and of itself is wrongheaded as it really shouldn’t matter who the moderator is. They should be like umpires, faceless and consistent, but they aren’t. So instead of debate we get performative interviews between the moderator and the candidate.

One unique thing that happened last night, and it’s telling, is that both sides claimed victory based on the same exchange. Usually there are separate moments in which one candidate clearly wins an exchange. Instead, Trump and Biden are both touting their positions on the law and order exchange. Biden says falsely that Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists and Trump accuses Biden, more truthfully, of refusing to call out Antifa. That was a substantial moment and a clarifying one for the American people.

As regards the scorecard, the debate seemed to come out something like a tie, but a reasonably good one for both sides. Biden stood up for 90 minutes and seemed to be on the right side of cogency most of the time, and Trump avoided the historical debate trap that most incumbents suffer in the first debate, while setting the table for future questions on issues like crime and the future of the Supreme Court.

Was Tuesday night’s debate an inspiring example of the best that America and representative government can be? Well, no. But why would we want that? What would it even look like? When a president of the United States negotiates with a foreign adversary or ally, when they haggle with Congress, or even when they speak with the press, there is no moderator there to make sure everything is fair and polite. I want to see how these guys react when it’s neither fair nor polite.

The debate provided a 90-minute window into both candidates that was compelling and transparent. Joe Biden in one breath declaring that he IS the Democratic Party and then saying its not really his place to give advice to someone as powerful as the mayor of Portland. Donald Trump so eager to pounce, as Republicans always are, that he let Joe Biden off the hook on several occasions.

The only thing missing from the battle of Cleveland was an animated crowd. Here again the pundits and experts seem to think that reaction from everyday people to what candidates say is bad, like it taints what people at home think. But just give half the seats to each camp. Debates are a live performance and crowd reaction is a part of it. Silencing that is like demanding nobody laugh at a comedy club.

So why don’t we all take off our shocked faces and realize this debate was exactly what it was always going to be, and that’s OK. It was a good, hard look at the men who want to lead us.