Ben Roback: Whoever won yesterday’s travesty of a presidential debate in America, it certainly wasn’t the voters

30 Sep

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Did you stay up to watch last night’s presidential debate? It’s impossible: you can’t have done, because no presidential debate took place last night. Shouting took place. Arguing happened. Insults were thrown. Accusations were levelled.

Chris Wallace, the moderator, was hardly a rose between two thorns. He did very little moderating. In many ways, he was given an impossible task – it looked at times like he was trying to nail jelly to the wall. Short of a remote control fitted with a mute button, there was no silencin either Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

The president likes to describe CNN as a poster child of the “fake news media” when its pejorative coverage shines a bad light on him. But neither Republicans nor Democrats will be pleased to see the verdict of Jake Tapper, that channel’s Chief Washington Correspondent: “That was a hot mess. Inside a dumpster fire. Inside a train wreck. That was the worst debate I have ever seen. It wasn’t even a debate. It was a disgrace.” Revere, fear or abhor CNN, it was hard to disagree with Tapper’s conclusion.

The President entered the stage in Ohio on the back foot. Were voters heading to the polls tomorrow, the outlook points to something of a blue wave. Joe Biden leads in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, with at least five more – Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and North Carolina – toss-ups.

In June, this column pondered whether the terms of the debate for the election might change drastically by November. At the time, we were deeply entrenched in police relations and race riots. We are now focussed on race again, but amidst the unexpected curveballs of the President’s leaked tax returns, a vacant Supreme Court seat, and with it the future of Roe vs. Wade.

This most unpredictable of elections is not going to become any more stable any time soon. The 2020 election dynamic could be upended at any moment. and the only guarantee is uncertainty.

And so to the debate.

Anyone expecting a serious discussion about the future of America will have gone to bed both tired and disappointed. That seems, at best, curious and, at worst, deeply disappointing, given the tipping point at which the country finds itself. The President who is inaugurated on Wednesday 20 January 2021 (we expect) faces a long and growing list of domestic and international challenges.

First, a country at increasing odds with itself over race relations. The heart of America beats faster as tensions deepen between communities.

It seemed genuinely staggering that in a presidential debate, one candidate – the incumbent no less – had to be asked “are you willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups?” Consider that for a moment.

The President’s answer rightly caused consternation and concern for anyone who thinks that the fallout from the election outcome could spill over onto the streets of an increasingly armed America. “Proud boys, stand back and stand by.”  The Fighting Anti-Semitism and Hate organisation describes the Proud Boys as representing “an unconventional strain of right-wing extremism. The Biden campaign’s response was swift.

Second, healing the wounds of Covid-19 and averting further health and economic crises. The President surprised many by declaring himself pro-mask, and even pulling one from his blazer pocket. It was a shrewd move that kneecapped Biden, who’d accused him of doubting the science.

But, in true Trump fashion, it was swiftly followed by doubts over the recommendations of Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Diseases Control. The Trump tactic? Shock and awe. Chaos and confusion.

Third, accepting the outcome of the election. America is not a country of coups. The peaceful transfer of power is enis enshrined in the core of American society.

For now. Because the President has made a habit of casting doubt over the veracity of the election process and outcome, should it produce anything other than a handsome Trump victory. During last night’s debate, he again floated the notion that the result might need to be decided by the Supreme Court. Hence the GOP drive to jam Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination through with haste. The 2020 election seems destined for the courts – so we could be looking well into 2021 before we get a definitive result.

Can anyone have really ‘won’ a debate that took place in this way ?  It feels wrong to decipher a ‘winner’ from last night’s events. It  was certainly not the watching voters. More than three-quarters of those who saw it felt the tone was negative (83 per cent) with over two-thirds (69 per cebt) annoyed by it (CBS/YouGov).

The President sought to bully and dominate like he did – rightly or wrongly, but ultimately so successfully in 2016. The Biden campaign, scarred by the affect it had on Hillary Clinton, pursued a different approach.

Trump spent most of the debate looking at Biden and cutting him off wherever possible. At times, Biden fought fire with fire, but his goal was clearly to try to appear the adult in the room.

At times, this approach seemed overly passive. So Biden rarely looked at the President and mostly addressed the moderator or spoke down the camera, seeking to engage the American people directly.

After over an hour of cross-talk that bordered on two angry relatives shouting at each other across the dining room table, it is a wonder any of the American public were still watching. It makes for an unedifying prospect as one looks ahead to the two remaining debates on 15 and 22 October.