As difficult as it might be to believe that the verbal knife fight of a presidential debate held Tuesday night changed absolutely nothing about the election campaign, it’s increasingly clear to me that it changed absolutely nothing about the election campaign.
Politically speaking, that’s bad news for President Trump. After all, however flawed the national and, more important, the state polls might be, they’re virtually all saying that Democratic challenger Joe Biden is in the lead. Yes, there may be a significant hidden Trump vote out there, comprised of folks who either are too embarrassed to tell canvassers their real preferences, or too mistrustful of strangers, period. Yes, an enthusiasm gap does seem to favor the President. Yes, both nationally and in some key swing states, the results are tightening. But the hidden vote hypothesis remains a mere hypothesis. Anti-Trump sentiment could well overcome the lukewarm feelings about Biden. And the narrowing hasn’t been major or uniform as best as I can tell.
Therefore, for the debate to have helped the President, he needed to throw the former Vice President considerably off his game, or Biden needed to stumble into major trouble on his own. Neither happened. And since Mr. Trump and many of his backers set the expectations bar for Biden so low with their constant “Sleepy Joe” refrain and insistence that the 77-year old Democrat was losing his marbles along with too much of his physical energy and stamina, Biden’s at-least-perfectly fine coherence and energy level earned him a solid passing grade, and for now surely reeassured many voters worried about his capacities.
Interestingly, in this vein, the Trump performance displayed almost no interest in overtures of the President’s own aimed at enhancing his appeal beyond his base. One possible exception: For the first 20 minutes or so, the President was actually even-toned and on-message. But for whatever reason (some successful early baiting by Biden, frustration with moderator Chris Wallace, surprise at Biden’s performance, an inability to maintain self-control, or some combination of these), Mr. Trump eventually reverted to quasi-rally mode.
So it’s evident that, unless he decides to become more “presidential” (for lack of a better word) – a tactic that may well be way too late to convince any late deciders in any case – the President will continue to bank mainly on achieving two goals: first, amping up the (considerable) base to ensure astronomical turnout; and second, convincing some in key Democratic voting blocs that Biden can’t be trusted – as with his Tuesday night dig that Biden’s rejection of the Green New Deal proper means that hes “lost the Left,” and his Kamala Harris-like attacks on the former Vice President’s record on racial issues. Not that the first claim in particular can possibly be reconciled with other Trump allegations that his opponent will let “Socialism” run wild. But in American politics, consistency doesn’t necessarily equal effectiveness. At the same time, if the aforementioned polls are generally accurate, this Trump tack hasn’t paid off sufficiently yet.
But pure politics and the debate’s impact on the election aside, it’s also important to deal with fears that the event’s rancor once more revealed an American political system that can no longer produce leaders with both the competence and the personal qualities needed by any society to remain reasonably united – and therefore adequately successful by any measure. Of course, Mr. Trump and his supporters seem to have generated the greatest concerns along these lines, but there’s no shortage of worries that Biden is simply (as per the Trump statements above) a pawn of equally angry and reckless groups on the Left.
What, however, is new to say on these scores? The country was deeply and angrily divided before Mr. Trump was elected. It’s been deeply and angrily divided now and obviously will remain so after November 3. America’s most successful Presidents – the ones to whom the nation is most indebted – have been unifiers and motivators across the political spectrum. Mr. Trump has failed abjectly here – and revealingly, he’s failed despite a solid pre-CCP Virus record on that supposedly supremely important political issue, the economy.
Whether you believe he’s fanned these flames or not (and his regular use of violent words and phrases to describe what he’d like to do, or see happen, to some opponents clearly qualifies in my view), his interest in mollifying any critic’s legitimate concerns is nowhere to be found. He appears to have no clue how many women and for how long (a) have been victims of sexual assault and harmful, derogatory physical and verbal treatment of all kinds and (b) how they and others are genuinely pained and outraged by the (unpunished) behavior revealed on the “Access Hollywood” tape and alleged in several other cases, and by appearance-based insults of women (whose vulnerability to such verbal abuse has mattered so much more than that aimed at men simply because society and culture have been so thoroughly sexist for so long).
Moreover, although it may technically be true that the United States has cured itself of most truly systemic racism, he’s equally insensitive to the impact of cursory denials of these claims, and of how African Americans could validly point out that, contrary to the Trump MAGA campaign slogan, the nation wasn’t remotely “Great” for them for most of its pre-Trump (or pre-Obama) history. (I’m aware that former President Bill Clinton invoked the same idea, but Trump hard-liners need to do better here than such “What About-ism.”)
Nevertheless, lots of What About-ism is justified when it comes to the reactions – and previous records – of so many Trump critics. Unless they should be absolved of all blame for the nation’s current hot mess? As I’ve urged so many Never Trumpers since the President began his first run for the White House in 2015, it’s not enough to decry his various offenses. The best way to defeat him and insure against any Trumpist revivals (whether led by Mr. Trump or not) is to address seriously the genuine grievances that created so much of his base in the first place. To this day, however, the Never Trumpers have not only failed miserably or shown no signs of learning curves whatever. They’ve bent over backwards and turned cartwheels – often in some of the most deluded and/or dangerously unethical ways imaginable – to justify remaining in deep denial.
How do I count the examples? They include:
>the glaringly obvious effort to politicize intelligence and law enforcement agencies to sabotage his presidency with Russia collusion charges that turned out to be not only phony but look to have been planted or spread by the camps of both his 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and of the late globalist neoconservative Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona — among others;
>the literally hysterical drive to impeach Trump based on an almost completely routine instance of diplomacy and foreign policymaking;
>the utterly shameless leaking and fabrications – by career bureaucrats and establishment Republicans with whom Trump needed to staff much of his administration for lack of a large enough cadre of talented and experienced populists and America Firsters – that helped foster and sustain these anti-Trump campaigns;
>the eagerness of the Mainstream Media to swallow the leakers’ claims on these and other subjects, and propagate them without any meaningful, on-the-record corroboration;
>the adamant refusal of McCain and other card-carrying members of the globalist bipartisan foreign policy Blob to admit to the disasters their strategies produced (the Iraq nation-building effort, their gushing and often bought-and-paid-for support of the rise of China), and to acknowledge the possibility of viable alternatives;
>the mind-bogglingly hypocritical attacks on the Trump China and other tariffs by Congressional Democrats and labor leaders who spent literally decades calling for the exact same policies in order to improve working- and middle-class economic fortunes;
>the transformation of support for more lenient but still sane immigration policies into thinly-disguised support for an Open Borders approach (epitomized by the backing of every Democratic candidate at this primary debate for providing free government healthcare to illegal aliens);
>the full-throated endorsement by growing numbers of progressives and other Democrats of dangerously divisive identity politics, education as outright propaganda, and authoritarian curbs on free expression;
>and perhaps most tragically ironic of all, the now common calls for anti-Trump and other forms of violence by Democrats – including Biden.
All of which leaves much of the country with a dispiritingly Hobson’s Choice. I continue making it as I have since it became apparent that Mr. Trump was in the 2016 race to stay: If I could have chosen anyone in the U.S. population to stand for a critical mass of the public policies I’ve long supported, Mr. Trump wouldn’t have been in the first 95 percent of my choices – for all the inexperience and personality-related reasons that were on everyone’s mind.
But against virtually all expectations (including my own) he prevailed against a large, experienced Republican field. And for the reasons described above, his Democratic opponent struck me as being both unacceptable on most issues and dwnright scary on the intangibles.
Four years later, I see the same situation – though my fears about Trump’s opponents now go way beyond Biden himself. So I’ll make the same choice. I’m also left with these observations and (unanswered) questions, which first appeared in a 2018 article in connection with U.S. foreign policy, but which apply to all other major issues as well:
“….American elections have brought to power any number of mainstream politicians, and through them any number of policy operatives, skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable enough to maintain the status quo competently and even effect important reforms. And as shown by Trump’s election, the White House can be won by an outsider with avowedly disruptive ambitions who is largely unfamiliar with Washington’s formal and informal levers of power (and lacking an advisory corps large and savvy enough to at least partly tame the federal bureaucracy).
“But what is still unknown is whether a leader unconventional enough to develop or support truly innovative foreign policy ideas can rise to the top through the current political system and all of its stay-the-course influences and incentives. Equally uncertain—can the world outside mainstream political and policy circles produce a leader both willing to think and act outside establishment boxes, yet versed enough in its ways to achieve transformational goals? And perhaps most important of all: can the nation produce such a leader before war or depression make overhaul unavoidable.”