The presidential election system in the United States depends more on norms than rules. So when you remove the norms, there’s not much left. You’ll read all kinds of hyperbolic headlines about the just completed debate. “Trainwreck,” “Disaster,” “Chaos.” It’s worse than that. There’s a reason Chris Wallace couldn’t manage the debate, and it’s not that one of the stronger interviewers in television news suddenly lost his nerve.
The debate system, as the rest of the process, relies on both participants having a similar idea of what’s acceptable. There’s always a little bit of interjecting. An aside here, mild interruption there. With 10 candidates on a stage during the primaries, it can be a mess. But generally, when fall rolls around and somebody on stage is going to get elected Leader of the Free World in a few weeks, there are limits, boundaries, no go zones.
Donald Trump went beyond the norms in 2016 while debating Hillary Clinton. But not to a ridiculous extent. He was rude. He stalked her around the stage once. He said whatever he wanted, without regard for accuracy. But if you go back and watch any 20 minute section of those contests and compare it to what happened tonight, it’s not the same. That was the cat a 14-year-old kills while getting ready to be an adult serial killer. Tonight was the 20th kill by an experienced serial killer.
There’s no comparison. When he let Joe Biden speak for more than a few seconds, it was a shock. This left Biden in a difficult position. Either get down in the mud, or risk looking weak. It’s a lose/lose, and exactly what Trump’s strategy is. Make your opponent look bad. Given the circumstances, Biden did ok. Not great. But at no time did he hit the president. Which means he kept his cool better than I would have.
The next two debates should be cancelled. Full stop. Unfortunately, that’s not politically feasible for Biden. It will get worse as these go, not better. In 2016, Trump wasn’t thinking he’d win. The goal was to avoid losing in embarrassing fashion, and if he could drag Bill Clinton’s accusers in to the front row of the debate to deflect from the Access Hollywood tape, while making Hillary uncomfortable, all the better. Now he’s fighting for his life. Or at least to avoid prosecution.
So spending a few minutes insisting on widespread election fraud with unsubstantiated charges was nothing. Refusing to disavow the Proud Boys, eh, no big deal. Side Note: They’ve already got “Stand Back, Stand By” graphics up on their social media accounts. This will get lost in the shuffle. Almost all of this will within the next 24 to 48 hours as he creates a new outrage. But our inadequately protected Democratic process got mugged tonight with the lights on and many millions watching. And there’s nothing anybody can do about it.