The Worst News from the Final Non-Debate: It Is Being Treated As a Success

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last night, Joe Biden and Donald Trump appeared in what would have been their third and final joint TV event, in what is still laughably called a debate.  With the world having been spared the second such event, I had hoped that this one would also be canceled.  We were not so lucky.
For the sake of my mental health, I did not watch the broadcast.  As I explained after the Mike Pence smarm-fest (better known as the Vice Presidential debate) two weeks ago:
"[T]he only way that I can consume an event like last night's joint press conference with Pence and Senator Kamala Harris is by reading news coverage and watching various talk shows (where even exposure to 15-second clips threatens to send me into convulsions).

"Given that none of these so-called debates are actually debates, I no longer feel in any way honor-bound to treat them seriously ... .  The only thing that matters is how the punditocracy scores them, and even that matters only a tiny bit."
Having spent the last few hours watching and reading the chatterers' reactions to last night's unnecessary distraction, it is safe to conclude that it changed nothing.  Trump lied repeatedly, even as some of his lies were exposed in real time by Biden.  Fact-checkers afterward pored over all of Trump's other lies.  Pro-Trump columnists dutifully wrote columns claiming that he had accomplished his goals.  (Oddly, however, the pre-event claim that Trump would try to be funny and likable apparently went by the wayside.)  Life continues in its depressing way in coronavirus-wracked America.
It appears, therefore, that last night was not a repeat of the "hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck" that was the first non-debate (in CNN's Jake Tapper's memorable phrasing).  Apparently, there was even some substantive discussion of issues, sort of.  Why, then, am I even more depressed about this non-debate than I have been about any of the others (this year, or in any previous year)?

Because the consensus reaction seems to all but guarantee that there will be more debates during future presidential election campaigns (assuming, as I emphatically do not, that our constitutional republic survives after 2020).  The moderator was praised for bringing order to the proceedings, and everyone liked the fact that a mute button made it possible for Biden and the moderator to somewhat blunt Trump's bullying.  Sure, Trump lied more than ever (which did not seem possible), but people seem happy to be saying that this event felt almost normal.

Four years ago, after the final mutant-debate-oid event of the year ended, I wrote "No More Debates, Ever" here on Dorf on Law.  I noted there that Hillary Clinton had cleaned Trump's clock for the third straight time, as even the never-give-Clinton-credit-for-anything analysts at places like The New York Times conceded.  Because I wanted Clinton to beat Trump in that election, one would have thought that I would be excited to have more debates in the future.  After all, if each of the debates helped my side and hurt Trump, why would I not want more of the same?

This year, I could have taken the same attitude.  Indeed, I was genuinely puzzled during the Democrats' nominating process when candidates and pundits would darkly remind people that the eventual Democratic nominee would have to go "toe to toe with Donald Trump on a debate stage," or something like that.  As I wrote in one column
"Honestly, if anyone reading this column were advising a candidate who was running against Trump next year, where would 'we might not stand up to Trump's awesome debating skills' land on your list of concerns?  There are all kinds of ways in which things might go badly next year -- most prominently a return of the Russians' successful intervention in the U.S. electoral system, possibly this time including successful hacking of voting machines -- but losing a debate to Trump is about as likely as my being Trump's running mate."
After the hot mess/dumpster fire/train wreck last month, one of the shows on CNN or MSNBC showed a clip of a Trump advisor talking to a group of senior citizens, telling them not to worry that Trump had done so badly in the first non-debate this year.  After all, he reassured them, Trump also lost the first non-debate in 2016, but he then came roaring back to trounce Clinton in the next two.
After running that clip, neither of the cable new talking heads even blinked at that complete rewriting of history.  Instead, they spent their time showing that Trump in 2020 is not Trump in 2016.  By not challenging that revisionist history, they allowed a whopping lie to stand.  If anything, the still-puzzling consensus among a large group of pundits in 2016 had been that Trump had at least won the first twenty minutes of the first event (even though he clearly had not).  So even by the insta-consensus of the time, the "Trump lost early but came back strong" claim is exactly 180 degrees off.
And indeed, this kind of laziness is of a piece with a more general run of lazy political commentary, among both pundits and comedians.  "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live," for example, is hardly a Trump-friendly venue, but co-host Michael Che had this to say on the most recent broadcast (October 17):
"Who's still on the fence about this election?  Whether you're voting for Trump or Biden, you've made up your mind a long time ago, and you're probably not thrilled about it.  These choices are so bad that Kanye's running, and people are like, 'Maybe?'"
Biden was not my idea of the best Democratic candidate, but that was because I thought that other choices were better, not because he is in any way bad.  And if the word "bad" can be used to describe both Donald Trump (a wannabe fascist dictator) and Joe Biden (not the very best choice among Democrats), then we ought to retire that word as having lost all meaning.
Nonetheless, the easiest thing in the world -- for political analysts no less than comedians -- is to fall back on that kind of stale nonsense.  "Hey, remember how everyone said in 2016 that Clinton and Trump were both bad (even though that kind of bothsidesism was outrageously wrong, even back then)?  Well, let's just say it again now, when Trump is worse and Biden is at the very least likable and decent, if not a lot more than that.  Repeating crap like that is easier than thinking."

One would hope that these non-debates (along with every other shred of evidence) would make it clear that "they're both bad" is simply not true.  Yet SNL mocked Biden's town hall performance for being somewhat rambling, as if that were the same as Trump's hostile attacks on Savannah Guthrie or his lies about COVID-19.

And as I noted above, even when a candidate clearly loses a non-debate, people simply forget such an outcome rather quickly.  It is one thing when overt partisans try to pretend that up is down, but even among the people whose job it is to pay attention to such things, there is simply no capacity for the most clear-cut debate outcomes to remain lodged in the collective memory.
Will this year's first event break that rule, forever to be remembered for the disaster that it was?  Perhaps, but even that is not guaranteed.  And even if it is accurately remembered in the public consciousness, it will be supplanted (or at least accompanied) by Trump having been "more restrained" or "able to focus on the issues" in the more recent event.

Would I feel differently if my candidate were trailing and needed the proverbial game-changing moment?  Or if the opposing candidate were anyone but Trump, would that change my opinion?  Not at all.  Republicans stopped even pretending to try to tell the truth beginning in 2012, and Pence is a perfect example of what a non-Trump generic Republican would do in any of these events: casually lie, deflect, and distort.

With Trump, there are no negative game-changers, because he is already perceived to be terrible by anyone who is paying attention.  With Republicans who are not Trump, there are no negative game-changers, because they are programmed to lie without conscience, and even if they were to slip up a bit, their political ecosystem would quickly insist that there was nothing to worry about.  Meanwhile, the bothsidesist media would say, "Well, to be fair, when the Republican candidate used the n-word, he probably meant to use air quotes.  And anyway, the Democratic candidate seemed nervous at one point, so he didn't have a great night, either."

There is, however, a weirdly asymmetric aspect of my argument here.  I am arguing that the end of the non-debates would be a good thing, for all of the reasons that I have just laid out.  I am not, however, so naive as to think that a world without these events would actually be better in a substantive sense.  The same pathologies that make the non-debates so awful will continue to exist, so we will still be bombarded with simply awful political commentary even from people who should know better.

The best I can come up with, in terms of explaining how the world would somehow be better without these non-debates (without truly being better), is that we would be spared the "big event" silliness that characterizes the media coverage.  "22 hours and 43 minutes until Donald Trump's last big chance to change the narrative."  "Biden has been prepping for days behind closed doors, and we have exclusive coverage of what his advisors are telling him to do."  Anxiety goes up, for no good reason.
It is all mega-hyped idiocy.  We would be better of with none of that, even though the alternative is merely the ultra-hyped idiocy of typical election coverage.  As Michael Che would say, "These choices are so bad."  But even when they are both bad (unlike the Trump vs. Biden choice), there is still a clearly superior option.
But because last night's moderator succeeded in making the event a procedural success, the meta-conclusion appears to be that debates are good again.  They never were, and the sooner we get rid of them, the better.