The Trump-Biden debates are wrapped up, and for the “Worst Year Ever” they didn’t disappoint. The first debate was widely condemned as the “Worst Debate Ever”. Both candidates talked over each other, and it was near-impossible to understand them. Biden faced calls to boycott the other debates. Trump made this decision for him, falling ill with COVID-19.
Anyone who saw even brief highlights of the first debate could be forgiven for giving up on the whole institution of debates. But this would be extremely unwise. Yes, Trump interrupted Joe Biden a staggering 128 times. And admittedly, Joe Biden did reply by telling him to “shut up” and calling him a “clown”. Yet this wasn’t the breakdown of the debate as an institution. Rather, it was an additional insight into who the two candidates are, and how they will act in the face of the adversity that Presidents experience on a daily basis.
The problem with the way we view debates is that we anticipate 90 minutes of detailed and virtuous policy discussion. There is no clearer example of this fantasy than the West Wing episode, in which the two candidates running for president have a high-minded and theoretical exchange of views on what it means to stand as a Republican or a Democrat. In reality, presidential debates have little to do with policy. Most voters are unswayed by the arguments of the candidates; they may have little trust in them, or have made up their minds previously. The one area where debates really count is character.
The focus on character may be why the UK has lacked similar style pre-election debates, and why attempts here have enjoyed less success. The presidency is a position uniquely judged by the character of its occupant, and in the build-up to 2020 President Trump’s character – depending on who you ask – has been viewed as his biggest strength or weakness. This really gets to the crux of what debates are, and what they have always been – a blank slate.
The debate is one of the few foreseeable major events in a campaign. But that is all that can be foreseen: the event. Most voters are aware of it, and around 80 million will watch it, but the candidates are under no obligation to make it a debate on the state of America. Like most other political realities, the in-depth policy debate was an unwritten rule, held up by the ‘honour system’, and President Trump lacks this honour.
Using debates for non-policy advantages is as old as the institution itself. In the first ever presidential debate in 1960, Nixon faced off against Kennedy. Nixon turned up looking sickly and sweaty, whilst JFK was the epitome of suave New England style. Accordingly, whilst radio listeners thought Nixon had performed better, TV viewers agreed that Kennedy had won the debate. The echoes of 1960 were clear in Mr Trump’s first performance, in which he waved his hands, stood firm, interrupted, and generally tried to give the impression that he was in control of the events of the stage. Yet Mr Biden was not immune from these gimmicks either – he would flash a smile whenever the president made an outrageous claim, as if to say, “look at this clown – does he have what it takes to fill the office?”
The pressure of these debates is intense. Each given candidate will have three or four separate strategies they’re trying to pursue, and they have to juggle all of them whilst simultaneously readjusting their approach depending on which hits are landing. In the first debate, Mr Trump was balancing trying to present Joe Biden as senile, racist, and yet also a radical socialist. The president struggled with these conflicting narratives, especially as he hoped that constantly interrupting Mr Biden would force the former vice president into a memorable gaffe. Ultimately, it was Mr Trump’s inability to change his approach in the debate that cost him more than any of his policy errors, and formed the main narrative of the debate in its aftermath.
But there was ultimately something more sinister going on. Donald Trump’s biggest election worry is high turnout – Republicans usually vote reliably, but Democrats are much more vote-shy. This is doubly true of young people. Accordingly, the president may have been playing a deeper game during the first debate, one which he executed outstandingly. President Trump saw an opportunity to portray the debate as an irrelevant contest between two old white men – not dissimilar to how young Americans view the election already. Mr Trump’s constant interruptions made the debate unbearable to watch, but he ultimately wanted that. He may not have done well with the few undecided voters left in the campaign. He will care little. The bigger constituency was voters undecided between voting for Biden or staying home. The first debate looked exactly like two old men bickering, and for Trump that’s as close to a debate win as he can get.