The Debate We Had vs. the Debate We Needed

The American Prospect

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We at the Revolving Door Project have a banal take on Tuesday’s debate: Donald Trump was horrifying, Chris Wallace overmatched and too Fox Newsy, Joe Biden decent but ineloquent. But we do have an idiosyncratic take on presidential debates themselves: We believe they should be about who would best run the executive branch of the federal government.

That might sound obvious, as it’s essentially the sum total job description. Yet generally, presidential elections are treated by campaigns and the media as about two things, neither of which has anything to do with how a president actually wields power. First, candidates put forward competing legislative agendas that they claim “will pass.” If we crack open our high school civics textbooks, we might remember that presidents can only cajole and needle Congress into hopefully passing their agendas.

Second, elections are often fought over what sort of emotive “leadership” each candidate will provide and what example they would set for the country. Curiously absent is discussion of the actual actions the candidates would take to set said examples and assert said leadership—most of which, again, comes down to managing the executive branch.

Tuesday’s debate, sadly, was much more about Trump’s performative unruliness than any insight into either candidate’s plan (or lack thereof) for running the executive branch. While he had some decent moments amidst Trump’s freak show act, this was a particular disappointment for Joe Biden. The best, potentially landslide-generating argument against Trump is not that he is a horrible person. Swing voters were reminded of that by Trump’s performance all evening, but few needed the reminder.

Rather, the best potential argument is that Trump is too weak, ignorant, and corrupt to run the executive branch effectively. That’s why voters have been stuck inside their houses for six months, after all. Hammering this home without end should be a no-brainer (which is why we find it so deeply confounding that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not only personally eschewed this strategy but also actively discouraged any efforts to take it up).

Making it even easier, Biden has a strong executive branch record to run on, having managed implementation of the Recovery Act and helped run the Obama administration’s triumphant response to Ebola. Moments in the debate covering executive branch performance were fleeting, but important enough to examine them in detail:

The COVID-19 response: Unsurprisingly, Biden’s most-repeated critique of Trump’s skills as a chief executive focused on his response to the pandemic. “The president has no plan. He hasn’t laid out anything,” Biden said. He reminded viewers that Trump knew (and bragged to Bob Woodward) all the way back in February about how deadly and dangerous COVID-19 is, then proceeded to downplay, undermine, and wreak havoc on his own administration’s response.

To be clear, saying that it’s bad that the president undermined the response to a deadly pandemic is the lowest of low bars. Yet in these grim times, calls to trust in scientists and “fund what needs to be done now to save lives” are sadly prescient. Remember that, as we wrote all the way back in February, Trump inherited a bureaucracy with clear procedures and tools for handling a pandemic. It never should have been this bad, as Biden reminded viewers.

The case for “Big Government”: If Chris Wallace is an independent journalist, you’d never know it from some of his framing. The right-wing propaganda ranged from outright racist authoritarian falsehoods about the protests in Portland to implying for minutes on end that Biden supports the Green New Deal (he does not, much to the chagrin of most people who understand climate change).

But Biden took one leading question in an excellent direction. When Wallace raised fears that Biden’s economic-recovery plan revolved around scary “Big Government” programs, Biden didn’t shy away or distance himself from the charges. He instead made an affirmative case for “Big Government,” outlining how his Build Back Better agenda would generate millions of jobs through aggressive procurement policies and strict Made in America regulations. Both of these aspects of the plan fall within executive branch purview. Later, Biden spoke with pride about his plan for a carbon-free federal transportation fleet, another procurement task, and one of the only moments in the debate that felt genuinely aspirational.

Biden’s proud embrace of a would-be conservative slur—“Big Government Democrat”—entirely defanged the conceit. Yes, some of Biden’s plans will expand the government. Guess what? That means cash in your pocket, opportunities in your hometown, and cleaner air for you and your kids to breathe. More of this, please!

The Medicare for All shouting match (yes, again): For an example of what can go wrong when one doesn’t defang a conservative conceit, just look at how, in the first few minutes of the debate, Biden somehow wound up arguing yet again about Medicare for All. Trump transparently baited him, by alleging that Biden supports the policy, leading Biden to fervently deny this, leading to Trump taunting that Biden had lost “the radical left.”

Biden touched on the terrifying extent to which Trump undermines the public-health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), but it would have been better if the critique had been developed more substantially. Why didn’t he talk about Trump’s failure to preempt Big Pharma from profiteering off a coronavirus vaccine? Or the Defense Department taking money for personal protective equipment and spending it on fighter jet parts and body armor? Biden ought to run on rebuilding the capacity and independence of public-servant experts throughout the government, from the CDC to the Department of Agriculture, the EPA, and the CFPB.

None of these are theoretical arguments about paying for a theoretical health care bill somehow passed by a theoretical Congress well to the left of its current makeup. They’re concrete failures of the actual work of the presidency, which have now contributed to 200,000 deaths and rising. Showing how the president could have handled public health differently using the tools at his disposal is more informative and more presidential than running headfirst into another shouting match over a policy neither candidate supports.

Wall Street: The morning of the debate, Americans for Financial Reform (where, full disclosure, one of our authors once interned) and the Center for Responsible Lending released polling data showing cracking down on the financial industry remains staggeringly good politics. Four out of five Democrats, seven out of ten Republicans, and six out of ten independents all support tougher rules and tougher enforcement on Wall Street.

Unfortunately, Biden steered clear of this. He twice made the point that millionaires and billionaires have prospered in the pandemic. Yet he undermined his own flirtations with economic populism by defending himself from another of Wallace’s phony “Big Government” charges by telling voters to “look at the analysis done by Wall Street firms” of his economic agenda.

No! Don’t look at Wall Street’s analysis! Don’t lend any more credibility to people who are already scaremongering about your plans, Joe! Instead, why don’t you expand your critique of Trump’s tax criminality to a promise to fire his IRS director and redirect auditing resources to the one percent where they belong? Don’t send more eyeballs to the analyses of people who don’t support your agenda, and whom most voters want to see brought to justice.

Trump and the judiciary: The president’s statements, interruptions, and general exclamations were filled to the brim with outright lies. He lied about the deadly consequences of his rallies. He lied about supposed praise for his response to the coronavirus. And he lied about the risks of mail-in voting. Behind Trump’s curtain of lies and obfuscation is a shameful (not-so-well-kept) secret: He is a failed president. It is hard to run a vast country when the leader is serially dishonest and prone to firing key figures in the government for the crime of telling unflattering and inconvenient truths.

It is notable that Trump only really had one item of substance to brag on: his unprecedented takeover of the federal judiciary. That victory owes less to Trump’s own superior management or top-quality nominations and more to Mitch McConnell’s willingness to turn the Senate into a single-purpose, well-oiled, judge-confirming machine for Trump after doing the opposite under Obama. But it is the case that Obama left numerous vacancies on the federal bench in the first six years of his presidency, when Democrats controlled the Senate. It’s a lesson that Biden must take to heart if he moves into the Oval Office.

Biden’s vision: For good reason, much of the debate’s substance focused on what Trump was doing wrong and what Biden would have done differently. Unfortunately, Biden rarely broke out of this mold to go further in explaining how he would, moving forward, not only avoid Trump’s mistakes but actively use the actual powers at his disposal to make the government work for regular people.

At several junctures, he highlighted his role administering the Recovery Act, a testament to his ability to solve complex administrative problems. And he made a handful of concrete promises, like to rejoin the Paris climate accord. But, overwhelmingly, he failed to offer many of the bolder solutions that would be within reach on day one. He need not wait for comprehensive climate legislation to get started on real measures that would help save the suburbs that he rightly pointed out are engulfed in flames in Trump’s America. And he could make good on Trump’s empty promises to meaningfully lower drug prices through executive action alone. The list goes on and on.

All in all, our takeaway is that a functioning civil society would yield a conversation about the federal government commensurate to its importance amidst overlapping crises. Future historians—and here’s to hoping the future generates historians!—may well view this debate as effective synecdoche for the gap between what our nation is capable of and what our nation has actually done to meet its host of challenges: from COVID-19 and racial injustice to a decaying democracy and a climate in collapse.

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