Don't deprive Americans of the Trump-Biden debate spectacle

August 4, 2020 Let's be real. Not a single member of the increasingly loud chorus of journalists and activ

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Let's be real. Not a single member of the increasingly loud chorus of journalists and activist types calling for Joe Biden to sit out this year's presidential debates is arguing in good faith. The obvious but (usually) unannounced premise for people like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is that Biden is not up to the task mentally. President Trump would wipe the floor with him.

I am not entirely sure this is true. This is not because I have changed my mind about the former vice president's cognitive faculties but because even in terms of debating style Trump resembles no one so much as Biden himself.

Trump is not a good or sharp debater. What he is good at instead is insults and shouting the other person down — or the other persons: He is just as good, if not better, on a stage with a dozen other candidates. He called Jeb Bush low energy and made fun of how much his campaign spent to come in fifth in New Hampshire. He mocked Rand Paul's low polling figures. He told Hillary Clinton that she didn't have the "tremendous stamina" that the presidency requires. (Meanwhile, Clinton complained: "Go to the fact checkers, please, get to work!")

This is more or less how Biden himself approaches debate. In 2012 he interrupted Paul Ryan 82 times. He rolled his eyes, sneered, and broke out into laughter over and over again. He called Ryan's talking points "a bunch of stuff" and "malarkey" and implored viewers to "follow [their] instincts" when the Tea Party congressman offered detailed proposals. It was a brilliant and memorable performance, and no one, least of all supporters of the Romney-Ryan ticket, disagreed about who had won.

Here are a few predictions for the proposed series of Trump-Biden debates this fall. They will be the most watched debates in history, topping even the 84 million record set by Trump's first encounter with Clinton in 2016. Each man will interrupt the other more than 80 times. There will be a lot of name calling. Biden will say that Trump is a liar who could bluff the blizzard off a chuck wagon, whose brains if they were made of dynamite wouldn't be enough to blow his nose. Trump will insist Biden's energy is the lowest energy in the history of energies, since our people started recording them, and everyone knows it. Politifact's website will crash. The Washington Post list of Trump's "false or misleading statements" will quadruple after 15 minutes. There will be at least one exchange in which the moderator says "Gentlemen!" and "Mr. President, Mr. Vice President [sic]!" after the two men argue over who would win in a fist fight.

A hundred million of us will all be glad it happened. Why? Not because it clarifies anything or helps us to make an informed decision about whether Trump or Biden is more qualified to hold the office of the presidency, but because this kind of shallow People magazine-level engagement with facts and issues is what American politics became long ago. Trump was simply the first to understand this and capitalize on it. There is no reason to think that he will be the only person to win the White House by running like he's trying to beat the other contestants on a reality TV game show.

Some people will argue, as Elizabeth Drew did in the Times recently, that the debate format itself should be done away with. Apparently these debates are mindless spectacles that allow candidates to replace substantive arguments with one liners and cheap rehearsed quips. This is like complaining that WWE is not a chess match. Most Americans accepted long ago that we get the candidates we deserve. The same is true of the debates. Give the people what they want.
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