Updated: Oct 25, 2020
From the left's perspective, presidential debates have long been futile, scripted affairs designed to sway a rapidly shrinking, 'undecided' middle. It is this increasingly small group that the left growingly disdains for getting the massive amounts of attention and efforts to sway them that continue to largely define modern presidential campaigns here in the US.
The first debate saw the left get invoked by both sides and was enough of a spectacle to garner attention for the second. If the first debate broke the mold, this second one certainly did not, and only offered more of the same old. Worse, not only was it a useless endeavor in terms of substantively framing their policy platforms, it also put the two candidates and their entourages in harm’s way in the middle of a pandemic beginning to spiral out of control again.
In the first debate, Trump flailed mightily and shook up a normally stale debate procedure by invoking the left. He tried to stir up resentment among the left by forcing Biden to highlight his disregard for medicare-for-all (something the left probably didn’t need reminding of, still fresh off the primaries). Trump claimed Biden had "lost the left" triumphantly a number of times, trying to put Biden on the counter. This on its head would have probably fallen flat (Biden never had the left ideologically), but he did it while propping up violent, far-right groups like the proud boys (and qanon in his subsequent townhall chat with NBC). For a moment, he actually changed the optics of debates and by dog-whistling to the racist, "white nationalist" elements of the country, he disrupted the usual demeanor of the debates in order to swing (far) right to “galvanize his base” or whatever the pundits would brand it as. Ironically, he may have gotten the left’s attention (and ire) in a ploy that could have disastrously backfired. It certainly raised the question; if Trump and his new wing of the republican party can so easily play to the right's xenophobia and greed, why can't the democrats look left on far less risky propositions like saving the planet from imminent environmental destruction, or healthcare? Perhaps it even raises the notion that this could yet happen - surely not what Trump was going for when he called for the left's attention.
So the stage was set for a second debate; many viewers tuned in who would previously have declined the unappealing prospect of two-plus hours of the usual septuagenarian political theater that’s typically on offer. Mostly these guest viewers were wondering if the left might again be invoked in another futile attempt by either candidate to best the other. There was also, in some corners, a curiosity (and dread) as to which right-wing militia unit the president might endorse next. This time, there were no such moments of depraved pomp by the president, nor any levity for the left – just bad news and veiled insults all around.
It came from both sides, to differing extents, as one might expect; in an attempt to attack Trump’s friendship with Kim Jong-un, Biden may have discouraged the left by playing the ‘neo-con lite’ bit against diplomacy with North Korea. Meanwhile Trump uncharacteristically trumpeted ‘friendship and cooperation’: A would-be neo-fascist dictator befriending actual neo-fascist dictators would provide little solace to the left in these circumstances.
For all the negatives, there were some definite checks in Biden's column. Though topping Trump on the environment is too low a bar to mention, Biden actually made a strong case for 'green jobs' and promised to rejoin the Paris Accord. He also seemed sincerely contrite for his role in the '94 Crime Bill (which he helped engineer). For many this was good to see, not only because of the left's unabashed criticism of the bill, but also for his ability to pivot on a subject and admit to being wrong; four years of Trump can make such trivialities weigh more, perhaps. Still, neither side of this debate should have truly won over the left. Any misplaced goodwill Trump may have won over via his advocacy for 'diplomacy' (with Kim Jong-un, Putin, and the like) he immediately vomited back up in the section on healthcare. By admonishing Biden’s ‘Obamacare-plus’ package (which Biden not so creatively rebranded as “Bidencare” live on air) as “socialized medicine,” many on the left cringed at the thought of the term being so watered down. Worse, Trump said it signaled “Bernie’s control” over Biden and the democratic party—a control
much of the actual left would heartily welcome and is all too aware does not and maybe never will exist. Biden could easily have won a few brownie points by pointing out that much of Bernie Sanders’ very unexpected popularity over the last 5 or 6 years was a product of his stance on healthcare, perhaps that Bernie ‘had a few good ideas that [his] opponent might benefit from hearing out’ or some such simple platitude before going into their differences. Instead he just treated Bernie as a nuisance that distracted from his message. Trump also mischaracterized Kamala Harris as being to the left of Bernie in either an act of silly ignorance or creative duplicitousness. Biden didn't handle it particularly well; in responding to Trump’s cajoling him about being held sway by Bernie and Kamala, Biden said of Trump:
“He’s a very confused guy; he thinks he’s running against someone else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them.”
Perhaps that would sum up the night for the left. Under backhanded attack from both sides, this debate made clear that yet again, any principled leftist would be stuck picking ‘a lesser of two evils.’ The debate also made clear, however, the degree to which Donald Trump can so easily manipulate any platform given to him to spew whatever nonsense he wants. It certainly showcased how dangerous his proclivity to lying and stretching the truth while being in a position of authority truly is. It shouldn’t go unnoted that last week the topics for the second debate had been announced by NBC as “American families,” “race in America,” “climate change,” “national security,” and “leadership.” Early this week, Trump’s campaign team decided to fight to get other topics inserted so they could launder in their unverified, Giuliani-acquired scandal for ‘last minute dramatics’—a gambit that seemed to largely fall flat—a boy who cried wolf scenario, except he’s still faking it and nobody's buying it. Tactics of that nature, underhanded and devious, and Trump’s somehow more obvious and overt dog-whistles to white supremacists should have long ago convinced much of the left to swallow their pride and vote against Trump, even if not for Biden; this debate probably only reinforced every negative aspect of the whole process.
All of this brings into focus the fact that this was probably a very unnecessary and potentially dangerous event to hold in the middle of a pandemic that is again getting out of control. On October 16th, 1960, Richard Nixon, broadcasting from LA, and a young JFK who was present at NBC’s NYC studio, debated remotely, pre-internet. It still baffles the mind why in 2020, in the middle of an unprecedented viral catastrophe (that Trump somehow managed not to get pinned down for), the people in charge of this couldn’t orchestrate this in a way that would model good civic behavior. One would think both the current president and the man vying for the position might have wanted to transmit to the people of the US that this is an
unprecedented time that calls for unusual measures in addressing seemingly ordinary and mundane tasks, such as carrying out debates. Especially as all of us flounder about on zoom, google chat, or whatever other medium has been introduced into our daily lives.
Besides, a zoom debate could have given Kristen Welker greater muting powers, so perhaps we could have been spared the Giuliani conspiracy nonsense. Or at least she could have tossed a zany filter behind him as he lied on national television. Still, if there were a silver lining to the night, it might be that at least no far-right domestic terrorist cell was given the direct go-ahead by a Trump who seemed too focused on getting in mentions of the Hunter Biden distraction to get around to it—and best of all, this will definitely be the man’s final debate, no matter what happens in a few weeks…
To watch the whole debate, checkout cspan