September 30, 2020
In yesterday’s entry, I used a boxing metaphor to describe how President Trump needed to approach last night’s debate. Consequently, I had decided to present my day-after thoughts and observations of it in the form of a boxing match’s round-by-round scorecard, using the same 10-point scale used by judges.
But after watching the debacle…er…“debate”…I concluded it would be unfair to the sport of boxing to compare it to what I witnessed last evening. Just as it would be unfair to “train wrecks” and “circuses” (During the post-debate discussion on CNN, commentator Van Jones called it the latter and was immediately besieged by tweets from circus workers informing him they’re professionals who behave much better than what they had just witnessed on the stage in Cleveland.)
Instead, I’m going to go back to the five things I recommended each candidate do during the debate and score them with a traditional education grade from A through F.
What I Said President Trump Should Do
1. Be Prepared. As I predicted, the President chose to engage in his standard off-the-cuff, shoot-from-the-hip communication style, speaking in broad generalities and self-serving platitudes. And while it undoubtedly appealed to his base, it kept him from providing any substantive vision of what his next four years would look like. Consequently, he missed an opportunity to convince undecided voters why they should vote for him. D
2. Act Presidential. Look, I understand that Trump’s base loves the fact that he’s the most unconventional President in history. And I’m no fan of formal, stiff leadership. But there is such a thing as respecting the Office of the Presidency, and Donald Trump made a mockery of that last evening. I’ve been a leadership and organizational consultant for almost three decades, and I can honestly say I’ve personally witnessed individuals fired on the spot and escorted out of the building by security for behavior nowhere near as rude, threatening, and inappropriate as that of the President last evening. F
3. Reinforce the Republican Convention Messaging. Yesterday I noted that Trump needed to reinforce that he’s really an empathetic, caring leader whose words and actions are often misunderstood…um…yeah…F
4. Blame Democrats for the Economic Shutdown and Slowdown. This actually was one of the strongest aspects of Trump’s performance last night. However, I think he would have been more effective on this point with a different delivery — more details/less anger. But he definitely scored some points here. B
5. Link Biden to the Far-Left Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party. Again, the President scored some points here — especially around the subject of “law and order.” But those points were diminished by his bullying style of delivery, so he missed the chance to reach the moderate, undecided voters who would have responded to a more well-thought-out and lower-decimal-delivered approach to this subject. C
Overall Grade: If this had been one of his rallies, designed to fire up his base, President Trump would have gotten an A. He was angry, unconventional, and unapologetic — all the things his base loves him for. But they weren’t his audience last night. He already has their support. Instead, he needed to convince the small group moderate undecided voters (many of whom are educated, suburban, white women) that he was the best candidate to represent him. And although we won’t know for a few days what those targeted voters actually thought about his performance, I believe he failed miserably. F
What I Said Former Vice President Biden Should Do
1. Be “Uncle Joe.” I encouraged the former VP needs to remain calm, be polite, crack a few Dad jokes, and display empathy for Americans struggling economically and/or from personal losses due to the pandemic. For the most part, he succeeded at this. Although his “will you just shut up, man” and “he’s a clown” lines were hardly in step with his theme of being a unifying President. Still, he did a decent job of “not wrestling the pig.” (More about that later.) B
2. Hit Trump Hard on the Economy and His Pandemic Response. This is tough to grade because I think his performance on the two topics were very different. I think he did a good job of painting the President’s response to the pandemic as ineffective. His lines about “the empty chair at the breakfast table” and “not being able to say goodbye to your loved ones” were especially powerful. But I don’t think he did a good job of hitting Trump on the economy. On the contrary, I think the President did a decent job of placing the blame for the recession on the Democrats for shutting down the economy. B-
3. Make the Election About Trump. Again, this is tough to grade, because I don’t think Biden did this as effectively as he could have. On the other hand, he didn’t have to because the President did it for him by behaving the way he did. Americans don’t agree on much these days, but I think we can agree that this election is all about the choice between two very different candidates and visions of America. And that was on full display last evening. C
4. Keep It Simple, Stupid. For most the part, Biden avoided any major gaffes or “senior moments.” That latter point is important, given that the President’s campaign is trying to portray Biden as mentally unfit for office. Yes, Biden could have been more precise and concise in his answers. And at times, he looked overwhelmed by the President’s constant interruptions and attacks, but he never made that one big mistake the Trump campaign was hoping he’d make. B-
5. Don’t Fall for Trump’s Personal Baiting. As I mentioned above, Biden mostly avoided falling into the trap of “wrestling the pig.” (For those of you unaware of what I’m talking about…there’s a famous quote, variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, and Abraham Lincoln that is often repeated in the political arena: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty. And, besides, the pig likes it.”) Yesterday, I encouraged the former Vice President to ignore Trump’s expected attacks and bullying behaviors. And for the most part, he did, coming across as Presidential and the proverbial “adult in the room.” B
Overall Grade: This was by no means a great debate performance by the former Vice President. But neither was it a bad one. And as I concluded in yesterday’s column, as the front runner, Biden didn’t have to win the debate. He just had to not lose it. And I think he succeeded in that effort, albeit in a bland way. He didn’t inspire many undecided voters this evening, but I don’t think he turned any off, either. I don’t think that can be said for President Trump. B-
I won’t spend time lamenting just how horrible last night’s debate was — you can find entire columns on that topic with a basic Google search. But I will say that CNN’s Dana Bash perfectly summarized what most viewers were thinking when she called it a “shit show” on live television.
The only hope for the remaining two debates is that the moderator will be given control of the candidates’ microphones and will cut them anytime a candidate tries to interrupt the other one. Only then will we witness a true political debate about the issues and the candidates’ competing visions of America.
I’ll wrap up with what most neutral observers concluded about last night’s debacle. If you went into the debate supporting Trump, you came out of it thinking he won. If you went into the debate supporting Biden, you came out of it thinking he won. So concluding who won the debate is an exercise in futility.
But concluding who lost the debate? That’s easy: the American people and our democracy as a whole.
For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.