I don’t know about you, but I held my breath for almost two hours Tuesday night. I knew it was obvious, by any decent standard, that Donald Trump was lying and bullying his way through the first debate—cheating, really—but I’m not used to my mainstream colleagues’ calling him out on it. Instead, I thought former vice president Joe Biden should have entered the trash talk contest and challenged Trump for who could be more obstreperous.
I was wrong—and this time, happy to be wrong. When the debate ended, cable TV commentators, even Republicans, shuddered. CNN’s Dana Bash, a great reporter and as mainstream as they come, called it a “shit show.” (After all these years, I didn’t know you could say that, even on cable.) And I realized: I’ve been so beaten down by Trump’s brazen cheating and abuse of norms—of human decency, really—that I thought Biden would be judged the winner only if he yelled back at him. Better yet, to me: if he crossed the stage and punched Trump in the mouth.
From the moment in the first GOP debate in 2015 when Trump refused to pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee, he has broken all the rules—of debating, and everything else. Politico’s Ryan Lizza wrote a piece that reminded us that Trump was better than we recall—even in the debates with Hillary Clinton—and progressive Twitter rose up against him on Tuesday. But Lizza was right: I was struck by the clip, often played since the New York Times published its blockbuster story about his tax returns, from a 2016 debate with Clinton. When she talked about raising taxes on the rich, like her and Trump, but then noted that he might dodge them, as he had before, Trump interjected, “That makes me smart,” with perfect timing.
Four years later, Trump did nothing but interject, but his timing wasn’t as good. It didn’t matter; Fox News star Chris Wallace, the best of that sad bunch, let the bully in chief run all over him and Biden. I hope Wallace woke up Wednesday morning angry at himself for allowing it. I hope the future moderators watch it and steel themselves, determined not to allow such a desecration of debate norms, or of their own personal dignity.
Nevertheless, I think Biden did what he had to do: display his human decency. And Trump showed that he had none.
Trump refused to condemn white supremacy. In fact, unbelievably, he told white far-right misfits the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” adding, “somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” But when he came after Hunter Biden, as widely predicted he would, the former vice president had one of his best moments: “My son, my son, my son,” he cut into Trump’s attack. “Like a lot of people, like a lot of people we know at home, had a drug problem, he’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him.”
I’m sure the millions of parents struggling to help adult children deal with addiction nodded along with Biden. And again, thank God I’m not running for president: I might have pointed to the recent videos and television appearances where Don Jr. looks like he’s drugged out of his mind, or whatever he has left of it, and urged Trump to get his oldest boy help. I’m sure Biden knows some reliable resources.
Occasionally—and I cherished it—Biden did strike back. “Will you shut up, man?” he challenged Trump at one point, adding, “This is so unpresidential.” He called Trump a “clown”—“Folks, do you have any idea what this clown’s doing?” more than once, but Trump was talking over him. At one point, I believe he called Trump a “racist clown”—but the volume on the two guys’ mics didn’t seem the same. Or else Biden needed to be shouting.
Ultimately, however it hurt, it was all good news for Biden. Conventional wisdom holds that if a front-runner doesn’t lose a debate, he or she wins. Which means that by all accounts, except the most blinkered, Biden won. And he did. He’s got a sizable lead, nationally and in the swing states. I wanted him to swing at Trump, but he did what he had to do: look like a decent human being. Presidential, even, if we can remember back that far. Biden’s eyes occasionally flashed anger, and sometimes pity, at the overmatched president. I’m not sure the exact right proportion of anger and pity when dealing with Trump, but Biden achieved an admirable mix.
I admit: I have been underestimating Biden’s appeal since the start of the 2020 cycle. I didn’t want him to run; I was impressed by our choice of female Democratic senators, and after Clinton’s stinging defeat, I hoped we’d choose one. But Biden knows the rules of white, male political Fight Club: Either you beat the crap out of the other guy, or you stand there, with dignity, letting him throw vain punches and wear himself out. Trump looked worn out last night.
That was Biden’s choice. It was the right one. And since he’s backed up by an army of voting rights lawyers to make sure he prevails on election night—or election month, as I like to call it—I trust my frenzied, fear-driven comparisons Tuesday night, between the ugly debate and the election, are wrong.
Still, I hope the future moderators watch and learn from Wallace’s self-abasement. And ask for one thing: a way to cut off an unruly debater’s mic when necessary. Even if I could endure that disrespectful debate shit show—and let’s be honest, I’m paid to—American voters shouldn’t have to.