I’m not going to lie, I stocked up for last night’s debate.
The first Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was so utterly, excruciatingly bad that I wanted to gouge my eyes out, stick hot pokers in my ears and never speak to anyone again. Essentially, it made me want to deliberately emulate that famous Japanese proverb through self-mutilation.
So I had a crate of beers and some hard liquor ready, just in case I needed to block out the reality that one of these two men was going to be the leader of the free world in around 3 weeks’ time.
But last night’s debate was different. Better, I think. But different.
For a start, the new debating rules introduced a “mute” button, which the new moderator, Kristen Welker, could use to silence a candidate who spoke out of turn. The threat of being humiliated by having their microphone turned off weighed heavily on both parties.
More so on Trump, I’d wager.
But through this mutually-assured destruction pact, the debate took a, and I use this word carefully, ‘softer’ tone, and was actually more of a debate than a pissing contest. For policy wonks and politics aficionados like me, it was actually pretty interesting, especially considering how low the bar has been set for political discourse recently, both at home and across the pond.
In the end, however, it was probably pretty all completely irrelevant.
To sum up the context of this debate, 30% of all Americans have already voted. According to opinion polls (yes, previously as accurate as a dog playing darts but significantly improved since), only around 8% of the American electorate are yet to make up their minds on who to vote for.
And the reality is that debates are held to sway the minds of voters. If a lifelong Democrat watched that debate, they’d vote for Biden. If a lifelong Republican watched that debate, they’d probably vote for Trump. And those Republicans that have run out of rope with Trump are already way over the horizon, much like our daylight at 6.30pm now that summer has gone.
I spent most of this summer stuck in a one-man flat, unable to see more than 5 other people at a time. What a year.
Anyway, this debate, this time hosted in Nashville, Tennesse, had to be a knockout blow for either candidate in order to sway the hearts and minds of the voters, or, at the very least, sow some serious doubts in the minds of opposition voters about their preferred candidates.
It did not do that.
Both candidates deserve credit for improved performances. Trump was largely respectful of both Biden and Welker, although this frayed towards the end. Biden seemed less like a crotchety grandpa shouting at radiators and made some good, salient points, although he had a weak twenty minutes in the middle of the debate.
Essentially, both candidates were prepped heavily by their staffers on how to come across and both just about fulfilled their briefs. It was a debate, not a screaming match, but it gave us nothing new.
Am I regretting my decision to stay up until 5am watching and then writing about it, though?
Yes. Yes I am.
While the tone of the debate was markedly different from the first, many of the same topics resurfaced. The first topic, unsurprisingly, was COVID-19, where Biden landed some good hits on Trump’s handling of the epidemic. Trump contradicted himself, refuted quotes that he himself had made earlier in the week, and generally sounded like he was completely clueless as to how to handle the situation.
Biden, by contrast, gave clear, unequivocal answers to what his plans for handling the pandemic were. The slightly worrying issue underlying this is that Biden’s answers were pragmatic but pessimistic. Trump gave no clear evidence of knowing what was happening (“We’re gonna have a vaccine in the next few weeks.” “Can you promise that?” “I can’t promise that,”) but used his rhetoric to give cause for optimism.
I don’t know about you, but if Jeremy Clarkson ran for Prime Minister tomorrow saying “I’ve got a cure, we all just have to suck on a tailpipe for 20 minutes, so everyone gets a free new exhaust and we’ll be done by Christmas”, I’d look twice. I am so utterly done with this virus that I’d probably sell a kidney just to not have to worry about it anymore.
So pity the poor folks in America who have it much worse (in many states, at least). Trump’s optimism is infectious in the face of all scientific, political and rational advice and it may yet ring true.
However, the rest of the topics of the debate were mostly won by Biden, if unconvincingly. Biden landed some good hits on Trump about his tax returns, offshore bank accounts, business dealings and all-round shadiness. This was particularly entertaining given that Trump had started the accusations himself, saying that Biden had taken millions of dollars from the Russians and the Chinese, despite there being no official evidence to back those claims.
Trump. God love ya boy, you do talk a load of utter bollocks.
But Trump still landed a few suckers of his own. Biden has good rhetoric on African-American rights and immigration, but Trump used facts and figures (I know, shock horror) about the two terms of the Obama/Biden administration to undermine Biden’s appeals.
“You had eight years, Joe. You did nothing. What makes these people think you’re gonna do anything now?”
It’s a generalisation and doesn’t begin to tell the whole story, but it is a good line of attack. Trump repeatedly called Biden “a politician”, emphasising his credentials as a businessman rather than a careerist in public affairs, and finally reignited the argument that was, to many Americans, part of his appeal in the first place.
That this line has come so late in the day, at such a nullified point in the campaign, is almost negligent.
But anyway. Some blows were landed, but no knockout blows. Except for one, by Trump, which was an absolute haymaker smashed straight into his own temple: he claimed that the only asylum-seekers who turn up for court hearings on their right to remain had, and I absolutely quote verbatim, “I hate to say this… Low IQs.”
But this is the thing. It’s Trump. It’s expected. It’s not aimed at his base, and it doesn’t really matter. America has largely made up its mind already. Liberal-left city-dwellers are pretty uninspired by Biden but will vote for him anyway. Many Republicans might, too.
But you simply cannot underestimate Trump. We all did in 2016, and we know what happened next. Biden holds a commanding lead over him now, more so than Clinton did, but we just don’t know.
What we can probably assume is that the election was already decided long before this debate. We now just have to wait and see what happens.
For now, though, to bed. At last.