The Debates Are Better When They Aren’t Debates

Well, just as I suspected, there was no presidential debate this week.  After Trump tested positive for COVID, Biden refused to participate in the next debate, which was to be a town hall style event with questions from a live audience, if Trump was still contagious.  The Commission on Presidential Debates offered to hold a virtual debate, which Trump refused to participate in, and Trump’s campaign chair (who also caught COVID) accused the Commission of offering this format as some kind of corrupt favor to Biden.  The candidates ended up hosting dueling town hall Q&A events instead.  So I watched them.

But I’ll get to that later, because it turns out that wasn’t this week’s only not-a-debate.

Ricky Dale Harrington Jr.’s town hall: suddenly I’m interested in a Senate race I didn’t even know was happening.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), infamous for a horrible op-ed he wrote over the summer urging that the military be deployed to kill rioters, is up for reelection this year.  No Democrat is challenging him, but a Libertarian is: former prison chaplain Ricky Dale Harrington, Jr., who may have just jumped from “joke” to “serious competitor”.  Cotton refused to debate Harrington, so instead of canceling the debate, PBS gave Harrington an hour spot on Wednesday to answer journalists’ questions in what was effectively more of a press conference than a debate or town hall.  It was clear that Harrington had to dance around the issue of a potential Trump reelection.  He stretched to find some topic, any topic, on which he and Trump agree (he settled on… public funding for autism research?), and he gave a lot of evasive answers in general.  However, he also offered many clear attempts at compromise between the major parties — including acknowledging any place for the government in providing healthcare at all, which is downright shocking from a Libertarian — and portrayed himself as the calm and compassionate candidate.  Like another Arkansan politician, he even said “I feel your pain”.

I am ignorant of Arkansas’s political climate, but Trump is clearly on a path to a massive victory there, so I understand why this tactic of criticizing Cotton but not Trump and appealing to being decent and moderate might work to try to win a coalition of Democrats and not-very-Trumpy Republicans.  The highlight, for me, was that he made a case for demilitarizing and defunding the police while shying away from that term, which might hopefully get some people to rethink the merits of the concept if their first exposure to the slogan “defund the police” was knee-jerk ridicule from conservative media.  For those of us who first encountered that slogan in the social media environment, where everyone seems to assume their audience has the same background knowledge they do and it’s often impossible to tell the difference between genuine confusion and concern trolling, it’s just nice to see someone respond to it with an actual policy statement.  Say what you want about the Libertarian Party’s positions (I am deeply ambivalent), but it seems to have found someone who is actually able to connect with people, and who is in a race where he won’t be accused of “spoiling”, which is a rare smart move for minor-party politics in America.

“If everyone is thinking alike, is there really much thinking going on?”

Ricky Dale Harrington Jr.

And so, after that breath of fresh (or at least non-toxic) air, let’s go see what “superlatives” our presidential candidates and their “debate moderators” earned.  NBC’s Savannah Guthrie hosted Trump, and ABC’s George Stephanopolous hosted Biden.

Trump’s town hall: a nearly uninterrupted hour of confident nonsense.

Most believable answer: Most of the times Trump said he doesn’t know something.

Least believable answer: The time Trump said he doesn’t know anything about a conspiracy theory that is about him.

Most baffling answer: Regarding his COVID-related pneumonia, “I don’t know what I was infected with”.  Although pneumonia from secondary infections is certainly possible, COVID itself causes pneumonia, and I would hope his doctors would’ve told him that.

Biggest advantage over Biden’s town hall: The format.  The town hall format was more of a loosely-structured interview, and Guthrie seemed badly prepared to handle him, especially in terms of getting Trump to actually answer questions.  If you don’t have the background knowledge about why Trump’s answers to many questions are wrong or irresponsible or irrelevant, he might have come off as competent here.

Question the moderator wasted the most time pushing hard on: Whether Trump remembers what specific days he took COVID tests on.

Question the moderator wasted the most time not pushing hard on: If the Republican Party actually has a healthcare plan other than “repeal the individual mandate”, why didn’t they pass it when they controlled both houses of Congress?

Most tiresome meme: There was, as usual, a running theme from Trump of equivocation and vagueness in the form of “well, some people are saying this, some are saying that…”.  How nice it would be to have a president who relied on trusting relevant experts instead of on what “some people are saying”.

Stupidest attempt at making a point: Wait… if Trump is right that the US is “winning at excess deaths” despite one of the world’s COVID highest death rates, doesn’t that mean that, rather than being good at COVID response, we’re very bad at stopping other causes of death, so the baseline is just very high?  That seems depressingly likely.  And, incidentally, we are notwinning at excess deaths”.

Biden’s town hall: he hopes he answered your question.

Most believable answer: That if Biden loses, there’s not much he can realistically do to pressure a continuing Trump administration to do anything good.

Least believable answer: That Biden has an intelligible position on fracking.

Most baffling answer: Biden referring to “what happened not long ago with that guy with the knife” in his attempt to say something about mental health in the context of improving the police.  Local media in Lancaster, PA are pretty sure he’s talking about a police killing of a mentally ill man there in September, but Biden provided absolutely no context for the average viewer at home.

Biggest advantage over Trump’s town hall: The town hall format was actually a town hall.  Biden started with questions from voters from the beginning, and when the moderator tried to steer Biden back to the topic at hand he… well… eventually gave answers(?), which is more than can be said for Trump.

Thing the moderator did at all: Good question.  Stephanopolous just sort of… let Biden speak completely unimpeded.  Which resulted in answers that were uncomfortably long and frequently covered several topics before ending in “I hope that answered your question” or similar.

Question that Biden most missed the point of: I’m quite sure the voter who asked Biden about what should convince Black people to vote for him instead of not voting at all was not just looking for policy proposals, but was also asking, as Anderson Cooper asked Martin O’Malley during the previous presidential election cycle, “Why should Americans trust you with the country?”, and Biden didn’t really answer that.

Most tiresome meme: Biden continues to refuse to provide a specific answer on the question of packing the Supreme Court until after the election and, frankly, I wish he would just issue a clear ultimatum that he’ll do it if Barrett is confirmed before the election.  That’s what it sounds like his answer is anyway.

Times I still remembered what the question was when Biden was done answering: 2.

Overall takeaways:

  • I think I like this format more than the debate format.  Both candidates, even if still frequently wandering off-topic, were more coherent this way, and I suspect it’s because they’re not trying to squeeze as many soundbites into a minute as possible.
  • Will voters’ perceptions of either candidate’s performance matter?  How many persuadable voters are there who are not otherwise following the news but did pay attention to these events?
  • You’re the president!  You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever!” had better become a lasting meme.

Correction: This article was updated 10/17/2020 6:25 PM to reflect that the U.S. does not merely have “one of the world’s COVID death rates” but in fact one of the highest.

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