Wednesday, September 30, 2020

First Presidential Debate Recap: What Was Said Is Still More Important Than How It Was Said

As a long-confirmed debate skeptic who was thoroughly unsurprised by what happened Tuesday night, I must admit to feeling a bit amused by the theatrically offended responses of major media personalities, whose (normally ample) faith in the civic value of debates was suddenly shaken to the point of wondering whether there would, or should, be a second or third event this year. Nothing that President Trump did or said was any different from what he has done or said in countless press conferences, interviews, and Twitter communications since he became a political figure. But for some reason this thoroughly characteristic behavior is deemed to be a more serious threat to the health of the polity when it occurs on the sacred debate stage than in any other public forum.

I, too, would welcome a calmer and more respectful exchange of ideas conducted with scrupulous adherence to the mutually negotiated ground rules. In the end, though, it's a mistake to focus too much on issues of personal demeanor at the expense of rhetorical substance—how something was said, rather than what was said. Who interrupted whom is not terribly important at a time when the nation is facing multiple simultaneous crises, and when the legitimacy of the election itself is among the topics openly contested by the candidates.

There was a time when Trump was treated as the most fascinatingly spontaneous figure in politics. Compared to other politicians, he certainly seemed that way at first—all the ad libs and digressions and heterodoxies and he-didn't-just-say-that-did-he transgressiveness made him stand out from the scripted, handled pack. But after years and years of the same approach, same arguments, and same obsessions, he's actually become remarkably predictable; the bag of tricks has turned out to be smaller than it looked. Other presidents who have suffered poorly-received debate performances have shown the ability to learn, to adapt, to change their strategic course. But there's little reason to expect anything but more of the same in the next two debates, which leaves the Trump campaign mostly where it was before tonight: hoping that their current opponent somehow becomes just as divisive as their last one.