The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Debut Debate

The stage awaits the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, September 28, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: a big preview of tonight’s debate (and why the answers are rarely all that clarifying), a look at the roots of Donald Trump’s status as a celebrity, remembering all those folks who thought tonight’s debate wouldn’t or shouldn’t happen, and a peculiar exercise in angering readers.

Gritty New Reboot of Grumpy Old Men Debuts Tonight on Your TV

When Joe Biden and President Trump square off tonight at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, we may be treated to the rare presidential debate that lives up to the hype in terms of consequences. We haven’t seen Biden on a debate stage since March 15 — when, his doubters should note, he held his own against Bernie Sanders. We have watched Trump argue with interviewers, including tonight’s moderator Chris Wallace, but this will be the first time he’ll be lambasting his rival to his face.

The moment people realized a Biden–Trump debate was possible, the Grumpy Old Men gifs with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau started flying around. Tonight’s debate will probably get heated early, and Trump will probably try to overwhelm and wear down Biden. As noted yesterday, most debates are remembered for just one or two exchanges or moments.

These two men feel contempt for each other. Biden is likely to use his “this is a battle for the soul of America” line at least once, and the former vice president undoubtedly sees Donald Trump as a malevolent and destructive force in American life. He thinks the case against the incumbent is self-evident. We’re going to hear a lot of “Come on, man!” tonight.

Trump probably sees Biden as the epitome of what he ran to beat, even if the former vice president doesn’t generate the level of animosity that Hillary Clinton did. In Trump’s eyes, Biden’s been in Washington forever, talked a lot but never got much done, is the status quo personified, and doesn’t understand business or job creation because he spent almost none of his career in the private sector. Biden’s family cashed in on their familial connections for years.

I get less excited about presidential debates than I used to, because it’s clear that the answers that the focus groups want, and that most cable-news pundits will “ooh” and “ahh” over, are not the kinds of answers that I think are good ones. A lot of years, a number of the questions and answers end up sounding like this:


CANDIDATE: I’m glad you asked me that, [town-hall questioner’s first name]. [Problem in America] is a real problem in America. I can remember when I was a boy, [anecdote about the candidate’s past]. I know what it’s like to face [problem in America]. I feel your pain.  But I’ve got a three-part plan to solve [problem in America]. First, we’re going to pass legislation that will [spend a lot of money] to tackle [problem in America]. Then, as president I will enact a regulation that will require other people to do things to tackle [problem in America]. Then, we’re going to work with our allies and the international community to solve [problem in America] in a systemic way. And when we do that, we will leave a better future for all of our children.

Many voters and members of the media seem to think caring about a problem — or more specifically, appearing to care about a problem — is the same as having a workable plan to solve a problem. They mistake the destination for the path.

And even in those simple, basic, three-part plans, those candidates are making a promise they can’t keep. Every presidential candidate assumes he will have a Congress that will enact legislation exactly the way he wants. Every presidential candidate assumes the Supreme Court will find all of their proposals constitutional.

Every presidential candidate seems to imagine that upon his inauguration, he’ll be working with a better, more responsive, more efficient federal government than the one that exists now. Just about every candidate assumes the federal bureaucracy will carry out orders quickly and smoothly, and without any foot-dragging, red tape, institutional resistance, waste, or mismanagement. Every new president steps into the Oval Office assuming that the website to buy health insurance will work, that the guns going to the cartels will be tracked, that the Office of Personnel Management will keep the personnel files away from Chinese hackers, that the veterans won’t die waiting for care, and that the FDA virus tests will work right the first time.

There is rarely if ever any discussion of similar efforts in the past, how they worked, what went wrong, what would be different, and what mistakes to avoid. Tonight, Joe Biden is likely to mention his desire for a $4 trillion stimulus plan. At no point will he repeat President Obama’s admission that “shovel-ready [jobs and projects were] not as shovel-ready as we expected,” or Obama’s later regret that he didn’t compromise more on tax cuts. Then again, Biden might repeat his 2009 admission, “We know some of this money is going to be wasted.

Maybe the time limits for the answers hinder the ability to discuss issues and proposals in any significant detail. But I also think that most candidates don’t want to discuss the problems in any level of detail, either because they don’t know the details, can’t remember the details, or because the details would make their proposals less appealing. Candidates and campaigns also probably think most voters don’t care about the details, and they may well be right. But the fact that so many people don’t care about the details doesn’t make the details any less important to whether or not the policy can achieve the goal.

And this is all assuming the candidates tell the truth. Back in 2016, Hillary Clinton discussed gun control:

You mentioned the Heller decision. And what I was saying that you referenced, Chris, was that I disagreed with the way the court applied the Second Amendment in that case, because what the District of Columbia was trying to do was to protect toddlers from guns and so they wanted people with guns to safely store them.

Er, no. The Heller decision was about the District of Columbia’s blanket prohibition on the possession of handguns by private citizens of any age; it had nothing to do with “toddlers.”

Tonight, all the questions come from Chris Wallace; in a little more than two weeks from now, we get the “town hall” debate with questions from (allegedly) undecided voters. Last cycle, Seth Masket at Vox made the sharp observation that town-hall debates that feature undecided voters mean that the questions are asked by people who have paid the least attention to the race so far and who often have the shallowest, least-informed, and most unrealistic view of the government and what it does.

He Couldn’t Have Become a President If He Hadn’t Already Been a Celebrity

Yesterday the New York Times gave us a clearest picture of the president’s personal finances yet. Over at TheArticle, I laid out how going back to the 1980s, Donald Trump cultivated this symbiotic relationship with major media institutions, allowing him to shape his own image. He was indisputably rich by anyone’s standards, but he turned himself into the personification of wealth — and he constantly found new ways to stay in the news:

By [1990, Trump had the New York tabloids so wrapped around his finger that he got the infamous headline “BEST SEX I EVER HAD” on the front page of the New York Post by getting editor Jerry Nachman on the phone and (possibly) having Marla Maples corroborate his self-assessment. As former Post journalist Jill Brooke observed, “This was before Facebook. This was before reality TV. This was when privacy mattered and oversharing was considered crass.” Trump leveraged his shamelessness into a form of control over how he was covered.

Even before “The Apprentice”, Trump loved being on television, in almost any capacity. If a movie production wanted to film in one of Trump’s properties, he asked them to write a scene with him making a cameo, leading to Trump appearances in “The Little Rascals”, “Zoolander”, “Eddie” and “Home Alone 2”. He turned up in television shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, “Suddenly Susan”, “The Job”, “The Drew Carey Show”, “Spin City”, “The Nanny”, and professional wrestling. He was famous for being rich, and he gradually became famous for being famous.

Hey, Weren’t These Debates Not Supposed to Happen?

Remember when a lot of Democrats and Joe Biden fans publicly argued the Democratic nominee shouldn’t debate because Trump lied too much, or because the debates were now just quip contests, or because it represented some sort of favor to the president?

First, if Biden shows up tonight, will everyone who predicted Biden wouldn’t debate or would back out at the last second — like, say, Pam Bondi — admit they got it wrong?

Second, if Biden shows up tonight and does okay, will all those Democrats admit that their call for Biden to cancel was a dumb moment of panic that prioritized their guy winning over informing the voters?

ADDENDUM: Yesterday’s Corner post was basically a bug zapper for the “react to the headline, don’t bother to read to the end of the piece and respond angrily” crowd. But what was really fascinating were the people who were genuinely angry about it after they had read to the last lines. Either I had led them along to think I was going to write something they wanted me to write, and then reneged at the last second, or I had dared to suggest that I could write something they never wanted me to write — and the fact that the piece was about someone else didn’t matter.


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