I don't have it in me to analyze the details of last night's and have no intention to. It'd be like watching a priest set himself on fire in order to try to burn down his church and discuss the quality of the flames.
A friend called me afterwards to say how difficult it was to watch. Another friend said he almost couldn't breathe because the air was sucked out of the room...and he wasn't even in the room where it was happening. Low-key campaign expert David Plouffe said he almost couldn't make it through the evening. And my thought was -- okay, if you all felt that way, now imagine the angst Biden was going through.
It was ghastly. I’ve found myself muting the sound when Trump starts talking.
Imagine too the angst Chris Wallace was going through. I heard some criticism of him, not taking more control of the debate, but while I understand that, I think it's an unfair criticism. Trump isn't a petulant child, no matter how often he's described that way. He's president of the United States. And under those unprecedented conditions, I think he handled himself very well.
I also had a friend who thought Joe Biden was more sedate than he'd preferred, but I disagree wholeheartedly. Yes, I'd have loved to have seen Biden go after Trump with roundhouses. but that wasn't the way to win. The way to win was to contrast yourself with Trump and show yourself to be presidential, not an out-of-control lunatic. Furthermore, while in a normal debate I'd say that, sure, I wish Biden wasn't so low-key -- but...but this wasn't a normal debate. Biden wasn't in a debate, he found himself suddenly on Omaha Beach on D-Day as bombs were falling around him and bullets were whizzing past. Under those conditions, he was grace under fire -- what you want to see in a president.
Sure, I'd love to comment about Biden talking about his dead son Beau and Trump interrupted, asking if he was talking about Hunter -- and not offering a word of sympathy. Or Trump blasting an air horn (dog whistles are so yesterday) telling the white supremacist violent Proud Boys to "Stand by" (which is already being cheered on Proud Boy websites as a rallying cry.). Or Trump offering a dystopian view of the election and the supposed, unsupported lack of fairness. But when the church is burning, you just try to save lives.
I will say that my favorite response of the night was when Trump was in the middle of one of his rants about Hunter Biden, and Biden was repeatedly saying, "That's not true," and Trump kept repeating himself and repeating himself, and finally Biden turned and looked at the camera and said, “This isn’t about my family or about his family, this is about your family.”
But mainly, details aside, I did have one overriding reaction that I think is worth addressing.
Trump is behind in the race by a huge 10 points. He's behind by significant margins in battleground stands, and enough of those states that projected polls having him losing. And people have already begun voting, in the middle of a pandemic. So, what he has to do in the remaining five weeks is win back his lost support, and win over undecideds in the middle. It's what I wrote about the problem Trump faces from the New York Times story -- when trying to win support, that's a big hurdle he has to get past, and it only confirms the bad things people think of him.
That's the bottomline from today forward, every single day -- Trump has to win support back from people who've turned from him and from undecideds who aren't sure they like what he's done.
And last night didn't do that.
Last night didn't help.
And it made things worse.
In the grand sense, the details don't matter. The details overlapped each other and became a loud screen of agony. It didn't just confirm the bad things people think of Trump, it confirmed the worst things.
A CNN instant poll showed that they thought Biden won the debate 60-28%. I think 60% is surprisingly a bit low. I also think that 28% is horrifyingly low -- under the best of conditions. But when you're behind by 10 points in a pandemic with only five weeks left and people have already started voting, 28% is a disaster for Trump. Their next debate isn't for two weeks -- even more states will have started early voting by then. Getting a 28% response in your favor is the Trump base at its smallest. He doesn't need them, they're not leaving him under any conditions. What that number means is that other Republican support peeled off from him. That doesn't mean that they'll vote for Joe Biden. It also doesn't mean that they might stay home and just not vote. Or vote but leave the presidential race blank. But it certainly dulls the enthusiasm level and puts any of those possibilities at risk.
It was a disgraceful, depressing night. But I had an appreciation of one thing: it took a step towards giving Joe Biden the large victory he needs to leave no doubt in the outcome.
How disgraceful and depressing was the night? It probably won't affect any votes -- this being the complicit GOP and all -- but I would be interested to see if just two Republican senators have second thoughts now about supporting Trump having a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Like Mitt Romney, for starters. And Chuck Grassley, who previously said he wouldn't support such a final-year nomination..
I like that quite a few analysts talked about an issue that I've addressed here -- that the debate commission might have to look at the idea of a "kill switch" for microphones during the next debate. I don't expect that to happen, but I can hope.
As for that next debate -- can Trump do better in the next one?
The normal answer is "sure." But I don't think anything is normal when it comes to Trump. So, I don't know if Trump can do better, but this is who Trump is, and he's going to be under even more pressure in two weeks. Yes, of course, in the great scheme of life, Trump "can" do better. And Biden "can" do worse. But since Trump is trying to defend his record, and it's indefensible in the middle of a pandemic, this is who Trump is, and most likely, the probable reality is that...it is what it is.
And the rest of the elected members of the Republican Party watched. And saw what Trump said about the supposed uncertainty of election fairness, and about telling white supremacists to "stand by," giving them a calling card to violence. And so, it remains to see what these elected Republicans will do. But we have a pretty good idea based on history what they will do. Which is important, because even this debate is not about Trump, we know who he is. It's about the elected Republican members of Congress, who continue to enable him, who will be silent about last night, and once again as always are complicit.