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Why These Presidential Debates Have Been So Awful

The candidates are on the same stage, but occupying entirely different universes.

by Harry Cheadle
Oct 20 2016, 4:40am

Viewers watch the debate at a bar in Midtown Manhattan. Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

What this campaign has shown us is that there aren't two Americas. There isn't one America. There are 318 million Americas, one America inside the head of every American, and it is an amazing and terrifying thing to discover how different all of our Americas look. They have been tumbling out on social media, at political rallies, at protests and counter-protests for the entirety of this overlong campaign cycle, a vast frothing sea of Americas, all raw and squealing and covering the ground with their sick.

A presidential candidate's job is to describe the actual America—the physical country, the strip malls and power lines and bridges—in such a way that it lines up, more or less, with enough voters' personal Americas. You feel that the guy or woman understands you, that they also hate taxes or protect minority rights, and you go out and buy a yard sign.

The tricky thing at Wednesday night's final presidential debate—and throughout this whole Hillary Clinton–Donald Trump matchup—is that the countries they describe are impossible to reconcile with each other. Trump's America loses to ISIS, it is falling apart economically, it has a depleted military and poor leaders and maybe even a rigged election. His opponent lies, and her charity is a scandal. But in Clinton's America, her charity does wonderful work for AIDS patients. Things are getting better for Americans, ISIS is getting gradually pushed out, America's most famous terrorist was shot by elite soldiers while she watched from a war room.

When people say that these debates were bad, it's because they aren't really debates. Debates involve arguments, and you can't argue without a standard set of facts to base your disagreements around.

You could see this clearly in Wednesday's debate, because this one was the most coherent. That's either because both candidates have gotten used to the format and each other, or because moderator Chris Wallace did great work in pushing them at least in the direction of his questions.

Take an early exchange on abortion rights where Trump said, "If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby."

Clinton: "Well, that is not what happens in these cases. And using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate."

When it came to Trump's famous wall, Clinton said, "When it comes to the wall that Donald talks about building, he went to Mexico, he had a meeting with the Mexican president. Didn't even raise it. He choked and then got into a Twitter war because the Mexican president said, 'We're not paying for that wall.'"

Trump: "I had a very good meeting with the president of Mexico. Very nice man." (Clinton's account of what happened is basically correct.)

When the conversation turned to nukes, Clinton said Trump "advocated more countries getting them: Japan, Korea, even Saudi Arabia."

Trump's reply: "Look, she's been proven to be a liar on so many different ways. This is just another lie." (He did suggest that he might be in favor of those countries having nuclear weapons, before denying he said this and reversing himself.)

Trump again: "Now she wants to sign Trans-Pacific Partnership."

Clinton: "I'm against it now. I'll be against it after the election. I'll be against it when I'm president." (She has praised TPP in the past, but has been against it for some time now, at least partly because so many Democratic coalition members came out against it.)

What do exchanges like these sound like to those near-mythical undecided voters, the Ken Boneses of the world? Neither candidate seemed to be thinking about that swath of voters too much. This was in many ways a greatest-hits compilation on both Trump's and Clinton's part, both of them throwing out lines that were mainly preaching to the choir.

Clinton accused Trump of "a pattern of divisiveness, of a very dark and in many ways dangerous vision of our country, where he incites violence, where he applauds people who are pushing and pulling and punching at his rallies." Later, she made maybe her most concise attack on his habit of demeaning women: "Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don't think there is a woman anywhere who doesn't know what that feels like."

Trump had his own ammunition, of course, blaming Clinton and her operatives for stirring up violence at his rallies (though he didn't explain it this was a reference to a video made by controversial hidden-camera activist James O'Keefe, who got Democratic activists to say some fairly incriminating and stupid things on tape). He brought up her emails, saying, "She's lied hundreds of times to the people, to Congress, and to the FBI." Later, he returned to the theme: "She shouldn't be allowed to run. It's crooked... She's guilty of a very, very serious crime."

How you scored this boxing match at home largely depends on which of these candidates you dislike less. Clinton was certainly more polished that Trump, able to talk her way around and out of questions about the appearance of her favoring Clinton Foundation donors while she was secretary of state (she filled the air with praise for the foundation's work, though its record is far from spotless). When Wallace asked a question largely about the accusations that Trump sexually assaulted women that included an aside about Bill Clinton's behavior, the Democrat avoided addressing that part of the question. And when Wallace mentioned WikiLeaks, Clinton pivoted rather abruptly to criticizing Russian hacking.

Trump, being Trump, inflicted some wounds on himself even as he mostly stuck to his previously stated attacks on Clinton's trustworthiness. He managed to praise Vladimir Putin and Bashar al Assad, repeated his idea that the US and Russia should be friendlier—not exactly pushing back on the Democratic charge he's a Russian "puppet"—and oh yeah, said that he might not recognize the election results come November.

"There is a tradition in this country—in fact, one of the prides of this country—is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner," Wallace said. "Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?"

"What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time," Trump said. "I'll keep you in suspense. OK?"

There are no doubt private Americas that vibrate on this sort of frequency, imagining that the dark forces, whoever they are, need to resort to some sort of massive conspiracy to keep Trump out of the White House. Those are Americas—and Americans—that will still be here after Trump is gone, and no less angry. Whether Trump concedes graciously or not, Clinton's election is not going to unify the country, and it doesn't seem at the moment like anything could. But, at least in my America, we could use a little less suspense.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.