The Corner

Elections

Actually, The Debate Was About Issues

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden stand on stage at the end of their first presidential campaign debate in Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

I know. A lot of folks are saying the debate was an ugly, insult-filled shouting match that barely got down to cases. Actually, I thought it was a highly entertaining exchange that helpfully spotlighted the candidates’ differences on issues. An ugly, angry exchange? Well, at least it looked like America. If you took all the people who bite their tongues instead of saying what they really think of folks on the other side, put them in a room together and let them loose, this is what we would sound like. Pretty? No. Honest. Yes. The debate’s decorum was a snapshot of where we are as a country. I think that’s less because of the president’s personality than because we don’t agree with each other about some pretty fundamental things—and because much of what we disagree about is the motivation of the other side.

Some say the shouting match must have put off persuadable voters in the middle. I have a different take. Voters who haven’t decided yet aren’t likely waiting for a nuanced policy debate. If they were, they’d have already made up their minds. Instead, undecideds haven’t yet focused as much on the issues as we political junkies have. Undecideds are looking for the big-picture on the candidates’ differences, and that is what they got.

For my money, the law-and-order segment was the decisive exchange of the night. The differences between the candidates were stark. I think Trump was likely the big winner there, but that presumes the country is closer to his view than Biden’s. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. The section on climate change versus the economy was also clarifying. The most important and politically consequential controversy—Biden’s shifting position on fracking—was never properly addressed. Even so, the very different ways in which the candidates strike the balance on environment-versus-economy came through. I think that’s another winner for Trump.

I used to listen to debates like a policy wonk. That blinded me to much of what was happening in 2016. Of course, this isn’t 2016. Four years later, the president’s abrasive ways have worn thin with many voters. During these exchanges, however, I saw a president who was sharp as a tack, well able to call up interactions he’d had with world leaders and his policy people in order to make his points. Trump was tough to the point of rudeness, as usual, but had an energy, acuity, and strength that Biden lacked. When it comes to policy details, Trump can be frustratingly thin. But when it comes to the big-picture issues and options, the president comes through. He never explained in detail why Critical Race Theory is so pernicious, for example. But I’m betting that enough voters have knowledge of these insidious indoctrination sessions and the troubling culture they’ve spawned to take the president’s point. What other politician would have had the guts to tackle this issue? A lot of voters will appreciate that.

Biden held up very well for about the first hour. He far surpassed the ridiculously low expectations Republicans had set for him, and that has undoubtedly helped him. That said, Biden seemed to me to visibly fade in the last half-hour. He never quite lost it, but his mumbling, semi-confused manner emerged. A couple of times it seemed as though the president’s interruptions actually saved Biden from what was beginning to devolve into word salad.

I don’t think the tax return issue hurt the president at all. Biden’s denials on the charges of Hunter’s corruption are unconvincing to anyone who has followed the issue. Even so, the Democrat-dominated media will likely succeed at obscuring the controversy. For all the personal attacks, it was the big-picture policy differences that came through. I think this will matter to undecided voters.

Maybe that’s all neither here nor there in the face of the tone and tenor of the debate. Maybe voters are just tired of the president’s aggressiveness or wary of Biden’s age and acuity, or just sick and tired of the whole ugly mess that our politics has become. A lot of the commentary so far has suggested as much.

Perhaps. But I think this debate has reminded the relatively few voters who may have only recently tuned in to this election how profoundly the candidates differ on the direction our country should take. To me, that suggests the race will continue to tighten.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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