My take on the debate Skip to content

My take on the debate

Did you watch the debate? Berry Craig did, and he has some thoughts to share.

3 min read

Thursday night wasn’t our guy’s finest hour. Thankfully, it wasn’t their guy’s either, though he and his MAGA Nation probably think it was.

“The reality of the 2024 presidential contest is setting in now that the first debate of the election cycle showcased the two main options voters have in November,” wrote The Guardian’s Rachel Leingang. “Joe Biden, apparently sick with a cold, mumbled through the debate, failing to land otherwise well-crafted lines. Donald Trump, a prolific purveyor of falsehoods, repeatedly told lies and avoided answering tough questions.”

Our side hoped our guy would reprise his State of the Union speech performance where he knocked it out of the park. But Trump didn't hit a four bagger either.

If nothing else, the debate proved that the medium is the message, or often can be. “If someone were reading a transcript of Biden’s remarks, some of his lines would sound smart and aggressive,” Leingang also wrote. “But the delivery failed – and for a visual medium like TV, that’s critical. He failed to sell his signature accomplishments, like his infrastructure plan.”

Bottom line: Neither candidate did much to win hearts and minds among independents and swing voters.

While Biden struggled, Trump was Trump, the braying, bullying bigot who refused to give a straight answer to any question the moderators put to him. Instead, he lied nonstop and spent his allotted time time sliming the president with cheap-shots and pandering to nativism and xenophobia with a touch of racism.

“Biden routinely stuttered and stumbled and generally reminded voters of one of their biggest hesitations about him: that he’s old,” Kerry Eleveld wrote in Daily Kos. “But while Biden may have fallen short of expectations on that count, the live primetime face-off did appear to have the desired effect of reminding persuadable voters what a menace Donald Trump is. Trump lied liberally throughout the debate, but his most disqualifying moments came on questions related to the rule of law and the preservation of democracy.”

Best I can tell, Trump and the MAGA cultists believe he clearly won the debate. Therein may lie a silver lining for our side. Because Trump seems so cocksure he blew Biden away, he will almost certainly gin up his stock hate mongering and lying. Look for more belittling of Biden and a double dose of the white grievance politics of anger, fear, and resentment.While the white folks in the red MAGA hats will eat it up, he’ll likely push more undecideds off the fence and into the Biden camp.

Doubtless, too, the debate will fuel the notion that our choice come November will be between “the lesser of two evils.” It’s not. Say what  you will about Biden blowing the debate. He is a decent, honest guy who is committed to the preservation of American democracy. Trump is a rank demagogue. At best, he is an authoritarian, and at worst, he’s a fascistic wannabe.   

Biden, the Democrat, represents the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president who must be spinning in his Springfield tomb over the Trumpification of his party. Trump is the reincarnation of the anti-immigrant “Know-Nothings” of the 1850s, Jeff Davis and the Confederates of the 1860s, and the white supremacist Democrats of the Jim Crow era.

Oh yeah – Trump is also a convicted felon who faces sentencing shortly before the Republican national convention.

Anyway, for my money, Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson did the best job of sizing up the debate I’ve seen in print so far. 

She wrote, “About the effect of tonight’s events, former Republican operative Stuart Stevens warned: ‘Don’t day trade politics. It’s a sucker’s game. A guy from Queens out on bail bragged about overturning Roe v. Wade, said in public he didn’t have sex with a porn star, defended tax cuts for billionaires, defended Jan. 6th, and called America the worst country in the world. That guy isn’t going to win this race.’”

Added the prof: “Trump will clearly have pleased his base tonight, but Stevens is right to urge people to take a longer view. It’s not clear whether Trump or Biden picked up or lost votes; different polls gave the win to each, and it’s far too early to know how that will shake out over time.

“Of far more lasting importance than this one night is the clear evidence that stage performance has trumped substance in political coverage in our era. Nine years after Trump launched his first campaign, the media continues to let him call the shots.”


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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY