Heidi Stevens: That wasn’t a presidential debate. It was Facebook comments, but live. And equally uninformative

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That wasn’t a presidential debate, it was a WWE match.

It was a beer-soaked brawl in the stands of a Major League Baseball game. It was a “s— show,” as CNN’s Dana Bash put it. It was Facebook comments, but live. And equally uninformative.

No one walked away from that debate more knowledgeable about the two candidates’ plans to tackle this country’s towering, historic crises: a pandemic that has so far killed more than 200,000 Americans and continues to infect roughly 300,000 more of us per week; a perilously crippled economy; a long overdue reckoning on racial equality; climate change.

I can’t tell you who won that debate, but I can tell you who lost: We did.

President Donald Trump’s strategy appeared to be to torture and debase Joe Biden to a point where we couldn’t imagine Biden leading us through what is, without question, one of our darkest hours.

Biden worked mightily to flesh out his answers between punches, but it was hard, as a viewer, to piece them together into something resembling a cohesive path forward.

Moderator Chris Wallace surrendered control early and never gained it back, repeatedly reminding Trump to adhere to the format his campaign agreed to, but losing that battle badly.

“Can Chris Wallace be replaced with a mom who’s been home with her kids since March?” one viewer tweeted.

The low point, without question, was Trump refusing to condemn white supremacy and, instead, announcing “The Proud Boys should stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys are designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called the president’s comment “astonishing” on Twitter.

“@POTUS owes America an apology or an explanation,” Greenblatt wrote. “Now.”

Only slightly less appalling was Trump twisting Biden’s praise for his veteran son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, into a dig at Biden’s son Hunter’s struggles with substance abuse.

Biden, to his credit, turned to the camera and addressed the American public.

“My son, like a lot of people we know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden said. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it and I’m proud of him.”

A discussion about solving America’s drug crisis — close to 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — would have been welcome. This was not that. This was a president desperate to pivot to Hunter Biden, a familiar line of attack, leaving a grieving father to defend his sons’ honor and a nation wondering where we could possibly go from here.

Up? I hope so. It’s hard to imagine sinking lower. But I tuned in last night not for the spectacle (I have Twitter for that) or help choosing a candidate (Biden had my vote going in). I tuned in hungry for answers — about federal relief for pandemic-ravaged states, about criminal justice reform, about Western states on fire, about a plan to get my kids back inside their school buildings safely.

How do we imagine an even slightly brighter future without leaders offering a roadmap to get us there?

Maybe a debate isn’t the format. Maybe it’s time to surrender the next two as little more than sideshow entertainment while we wait for the big event: the election. Maybe we have to settle for reading candidates’ plans and platforms online and just trusting (hoping?) they can articulate them and enact them when given the chance in office.

Still, as I watched the train wreck on my TV screen, my mind kept returning to a moment in early March. Rachel Maddow hosted then-candidate Elizabeth Warren to discuss the coronavirus that many of us were just beginning to wonder how to wrap our heads around.

Warren launched into a detailed explanation about how loan defaults and manufacturing declines, combined with ballooning debt from enormous tax breaks, alongside rate cuts intended to juice the economy, alongside a supply-chain problem, risky banking climate and a president who discredits science, all put the United States in a perilous position to deal with the coronavirus.

“It would be amazing,” Maddow said at the end of Warren’s spiel, “if we had a president who understood all of those things all at once and could spout off on them off the top of her head without notes and no warning that I was going to ask you that.”

Wouldn’t it?

Maybe Biden will win the presidency and appoint Warren to be treasury secretary.

David Smith, writing in The Guardian, offers another scenario:

“If Trump is reelected,” Smith wrote Wednesday morning, “this dark, horrifying, unwatchable fever dream will surely be the first line of America’s obituary.”

I wish I saw something he didn’t. Or didn’t see something he did.

What I did see was a president running roughshod over the American people’s right to hear a vision for their battered country, determined to hold a nation in his grip or destroy it trying. I saw an opponent do his best to steer the dialogue back to policy, only to get repeatedly pulled back into Trump’s muck.

I felt America shudder. In despair, certainly. In resignation? I hope not.

In the absence of a clear, concise policy debate, we’re left to judge the candidates on what we see in front of us: their moral compass, and what they’ve done, up to this point, with their time in office and their time on Earth.

Trump degrades everything he touches. Biden, I hope, will get a chance to restore us to our former selves so we can work, more or less together, toward that more perfect union we seek.



Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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