Do we really have to pick a debate winner in a brawl? Do the rules matter?
Didn't we know ahead of time that Donald Trump would slash viciously and personally and pretend that he is an outsider to Washington? We knew Joe Biden would try to look presidential and mostly stick to his message while wryly noting that Trump was lying once again. Any substantive question or response that was a surprise slipped by me.
It may have been important to election prospects, but as a debate, it was a pretty sad commentary on our times. And yes, the fact-checking industry was hard at work (yes, Mr. President, there are 100 million Americans with health pre-conditions.)
Nevertheless, we were drawn, apparently by the millions, to watch for verbal pratfalls and to persuade ourselves that we're doing what we can to save the republic – regardless of which old, white man you were backing.
But what we got was a very hot, very unusual, very demanding and chaotic state as a contemptuous Trump who insisted on any spotlight, on rewriting fact and on attacking Hunter Biden for taking a job in the Urkraine. Joe Biden gave as good as he got, but at times seemed a prop for the Trump show.
In his uniquely abusive way, Trump again disdained Science, ignored economic realities and patted himself on the back repeatedly. Even even his team doesn't know as much as does he, as he is showing us with complete disregard for Americans' health, the flames of racial discord and the ability to go years without paying tax. Biden relied on 47 years of Washington experience for knowledge of what and how a government ought to act, even if he blew several decisions along the way.
Nevertheless, we saw a raw Trump and a more expectedly refined Biden. It made you want Trump out of the office today, quite apart from substance about economics.
Do we really want to do this twice more, plus hold breathless for the Kamala Harris-Mike Pence knockout?
Contentiousness from the start
Actually, most of the nervous attacks at the start of the night were slid neatly into actual policy debates over the timing of a Supreme Court justice, over health care, over coronavirus, with Trump calling Biden "socialist" and Biden calling Trump a "clown," a "fool" and "irresponsible." Trump told Biden he was dumb. Biden told Trump he is a liar and a terrible president.
Trump refused to let either Biden or the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, finish almost any sentence, as if it were a useful strategy. It seemed Trump did not know this was supposed to be a debate. Rather it appeared a creative history seminar, with both candidates re-inventing events, timelines and rationales whether recent or in the long past.
It almost did not matter if the subject was the wearing of masks, stimulation of the economy, health care. What mattered to Trump was that his voice was the only one to be heard, and what mattered to Biden was being right about what has happened in the country.
Trump actually had informed himself selectively about things he wanted to get across. Biden had studied up. Still, you could have died waiting for an actual complete sentence from either man. At one point, we saw a side debate about who was interrupting the other more.
For sure, everything bad that has happened to the country Trump managed to blame someone else, especially Democratic governors. Biden wasn't having it. "You are the worst president America has ever had," said Biden.
My favorite blame-name was Trump's equivocations on paying less income tax than a teacher because Biden and Barack Obama and predecessors created the tax laws that he used.
Issues of racial discord were turned upside down by Trump, who tried presenting himself as some sort of humanitarian who magically also has the backing of law enforcement. Biden's talk of social equality was quieter and more realistic. Trump defended ending racial sensitivity training, for example, saying it contributed to seeing the country as harboring systematic bias. Well, yeah.
Unchecked crime statistics flew through the air along with partisan-tinged charges about party platforms, talk of protests was as if from another planet. Trump insisted on mixing protests with incidents of violence before we all fell into a verbal abyss over finger-pointing at left- or right-oriented organized militias.
Trump refused to denounce white supremacists and said such groups should stand down but "stand by." I'm sure we'll hear it a lot more in the coming days.
One small surprise was Trump acknowledging that human activity may be having a partial effect on climate change – which was better than denying climate change altogether. Then Trump quickly turned the discussion into more trashing of exaggerated policy aspirations.
It was an exhausting 90 minutes.
What does it all mean?
From all the prognosticating, it seemed that the dominant thought was that Trump had to score points – perform, if you will – to turn around a campaign being brought down as more people see him for the ineffective, mean, egotistical leader he is. It seems doubtful that this night changed that arc. Um, nope. He was baying at the moon.
Indeed, it almost seemed like an abusive Trump is so fixated on a fraudulent election that he will insist on constant court challenges, poll intimidation and whatever he can do to stay in office.
At the same time, Biden survived his lowered expectations, and a race that has hardly changed national leanings for Democrats probably holds true after this debate. What matters now is turnout, particularly in those narrowing races even in some Trump states like Iowa and Ohio, as well as in Pennsylvania and Florida.
We're not really voting for ideas, but for what we perceive to be those ideas to stand for. Trump's support remains loyal because his base pays less attention to what he actually does or does not do than to the notion that Trump is willing to stick a finger in the eye of protocol – and maybe taxes for some others even beyond his own IRS return.
Hey, it wasn't boring, and maybe, just maybe, we learned just a little more about how fixated Trump can get on distractions and how confidently earnest Biden has trained himself to sound.
None of that will disappear a public health menace, put people back to work, forestall the now-rampaging effects of climate change or show some humanity for Americans who may or not vote for the candidate.
The debate stage is a ritual, not an oral exam, and this one was a World Wrestling Federation mat. The best we can hope for is that the election will end someday.