2020 US Election

Why the debate worked: bearing witness to the madness of 45

Ray D’Cruz, Founder, Election Debates

Despite all that’s being said and written about the First Presidential Debate, it may not have been a waste of time.

Tuesday’s debate succeeded in laying bare before 75m Americans that character is on the ballot, as Joe Biden frequently says.

The purpose of Election Debates is to inform voters, and to help them choose. While the First Presidential Debate was light on content, the choice was made clear.

The debate neatly captured Trump’s derangement, self-obsession, lies, nastiness, confusion and lack of vision. In this 90-minute debate, a four year term and a president temperamentally unfit for office was on show.

Trump has two (legal) paths to victory. One is attracting undecided voters. He failed to do this on Tuesday: his extreme behaviour was poorly received by undecided voters.

Another path is convincing lukewarm Biden supporters to abstain from voting. The madness of 45, laid bare on stage, might have solidified Biden’s support. Biden raised a record $3.8m in the hour after the debate.

Trump may have emboldened part of his base, and the worst elements of that base are now on a recruiting drive. But this group is unreachable by logic or fact, and a better format, or a more assertive moderator would not change that.

The structure of debate deserves some credit for making his failure so obvious. Trump’s inability to manage time, or to shut up and listen, and his disrespect for his opponent and the moderator all went to character.

If this were a boxing match, Trump would’ve been disqualified during the fight. But it was a debate, and he was allowed to go on, and in the end he made a fool of himself.

Now there’s talk of changing the rules for the second debate: including silencing whoever doesn’t have the floor. That might help the audience listen more closely to the issues. But maybe it just allows Trump to heckle and bait out of the public eye. With Biden’s stutter, Trump will use interjections to rattle his opponent. He wants the public to confuse Biden’s stutter for a lack of mental acuity.

Character is on the ballot, and this debate may prove to be the most consequential presidential debate in a long time.


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