October 1, 2020

Winning: Setting a New Low Without Losing

chess game

Have you ever played a board game with a young child who becomes frustrated by how they are doing at some point during the game, flips the board over, and storms out? You might regard this as them being a sore loser. They might regard it as something closer to this: "I didn't win the game, but I didn't lose either." Most rational adults recognize that for what it is, but not all adults are rationale.

Suppose you were heading into a big debate as the underdog. Nobody expected you to do particularly well. And yet, you had very little to lose because your fans were going to stick with you no matter what. Your opponent has almost every advantage over you, but you have a trick up your sleeve. You see, most of your opponent's advantages are based on the perfectly understandable assumption that everyone will abide by fundamental norms of debate (e.g., decorum, civility, basic human decency). If there is one skill you have that puts almost everyone else to shame, it is your ability to behave in such an appallingly poor manner that you inflame anger in others, leading them to become defensive or flustered to the point where they make mistakes. And if if that wasn't impressive enough, you are also highly skilled in the art of pulling others into the gutter you inhabit. Even though they never sink as low as you do, they end up looking worse than normal just for having shared the stage with you.

For my fellow masochists who didn't turn off the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I think this is what we witnessed. Had Trump come in calm and played by the rules, he might have been able to score a few points, but he almost certainly would have lost. While such a performance might have helped him appeal to some undecided voters, it probably would have lowered the enthusiasm of his base to some degree. They wouldn't have liked a calmer and more reasonable-sounding Trump; they want the Trump they see at his rallies.

Trump still lost, and his behavior set a new low in presidential debates; however, he managed to excite his base, pull Biden into the gutter with him at least for a few moments, and convince a whole lot of American voters that they want nothing whatsoever to do with presidential politics. I can't help thinking that this might be a victory of sorts. By openly violating the debate norms, he did what he does well. His base will love him for it, and the left will argue about how Biden should have handled it.

And as we have seen time-and-time again, Trump left his opponent without any ideal option. Suppose Biden had simply walked off stage as soon as it became clear that this was not going to be a real debate, as some on the left are suggesting he should have. He would have retained the moral high ground in the minds of the handful of us who still value such things, but many others would have interpreted is as a sign of weakness from which he probably couldn't have recovered. Suppose Biden had rolled up his sleeves and wholeheartedly joined Trump in the gutter, fighting him at his own disgusting level, as some on the left wish he would have. He would have lost miserably. Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris might have been able to do that, but I think it is clear that Biden cannot. It would not have been at all consistent with the manner in which his campaign is trying to present him.

No, I think the ideal scenario for Biden might have been to stay in the "debate" but ignore Trump's behavior, remaining the compassionate statesman he is trying to be. Instead of even responding directly to Trump, he could have taken every opportunity to look into the camera and told the voters about his plans as president. He could have calmly let us know that this was what he was doing so there would be no confusion about it. I think this would have destroyed Trump and earned Biden points among what remains of the reasonable portions of the left. It also would have been extremely difficult for almost anyone to execute. Unfortunately, I suspect that much of the so-called resistance would not have liked this and might have even abandoned Biden for it. I hate to say that and hope I am wrong, but I fear it may be accurate.

We should no longer be surprised by Trump's behavior. If he didn't think he could win by abiding by long-established debate norms, we had to expect he would disregard them. If he didn't think anything he said would alienate his base, we had to expect the worst. And since any political advisor would have told him that Biden's team was surely preparing their candidate for what they had seen of Trump in the 2016 debates, we had to expect that he would go lower than we (or at least Biden's team) thought was possible.

Trump didn't need to win the debate because this wasn't a debate. His behavior guaranteed he would dominate the news cycle no matter how Biden responded to him, and he managed to rattle Biden. Given the image of Biden that his campaign has been trying to craft, this may have been damaging because it made Biden look somewhat more like Trump at least for a few brief moments. And that is really all Trump needed to do: tarnish Biden's image a bit.