I wasn’t in the crowd of people who believed Joe Biden shouldn’t deign to debate President Trump, but put me in the crowd that believes he shouldn’t debate him again. Not after Tuesday night’s horror show: a disgrace to the format, an insult to the country, a nearly pointless 90 minutes.
And, I should add, a degradation of the presidency itself, which Trump had degraded so thoroughly already. He put on a performance so contemptuous, so puerile, so dishonest and so across-the-board repellent that the moderator, Chris Wallace, morphed into some amalgam of elementary-school principal, child psychologist, traffic cop and roadkill.
No matter how Wallace pleaded with Trump or admonished him, he couldn’t make him behave. But then why should Wallace have an experience any different from that of Trump’s chiefs of staff, of all the other former administration officials who have fled for the hills, of the Republican lawmakers who just threw up their hands and threw away any scruples they had?
Almost from the start, he talked over Biden, taunting him, demeaning him, trying to provoke him. He interrupted him and interrupted him and then interrupted him some more, all the while complaining that he, Trump, ever the martyr, was being persecuted once again.
On taxes, for example: He turned the revelation that he had paid only $750 in federal income taxes for each of two recent years into an indictment of Biden, as a former senator and vice president, for creating so many tax loopholes.
On federal judges: His boast of appointing scores and scores of them segued into a rebuke of President Barack Obama and Biden for leaving behind so many vacancies, as if they’d simply forgotten about them. Not exactly. Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican majority leader, blocked the Obama administration from filling many of them, and then, after Trump was inaugurated, abetted him.
On the integrity of the upcoming vote count: He pivoted from Wallace’s question about whether he would refrain from declaring victory “until the election has been independently certified” into a fresh exhortation that his supporters serve as poll watchers, looking out for sketchy activity. He’s going to get people hurt. I mean, on top of all the people he has hurt already.
Responding to this pile of bile, Biden was hardly a choir boy. “You’re the worst president America has ever had,” he said at one point. He repeatedly called Trump a liar and several times called him “this clown.”
Biden was right: Trump wouldn’t shut up, and wasn’t remotely presidential, and to the extent that Biden occasionally flung mud of his own, well, when you’re dragged into the pigsty, you have no other choice.
Mostly, though, Biden shook his head as Trump ranted and raged. He smiled dismissively. He looked at Wallace or at the camera or anywhere but at Trump, his lack of eye contact a suggestion that some nonsense — and some nonsense purveyors — are best ignored. His obvious strategy was to treat Trump as part spectacle, part joke, all embarrassment. Which is precisely how Trump deserved to be treated.
Only one man on that stage persuasively communicated that he has the interests of the American people at heart. Only one man on that stage seemed at all interested in maintaining a tether to the truth. Only one man demonstrated any respect for Wallace or for the process. Only one man would be bearable for the next four years.
I needn’t spell out who that man is.
But I have a message for him, and I’m serious: Don’t do this again. You showed your willingness. You showed up. But another of these fiascos is beneath you. I’d add that it’s beneath America, if there’s even such a thing anymore.