Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Learning from a messy presidential debate -- Oct. 1, 2020 column


Not that time stood still during the first presidential debate, but at one point I desperately checked the clock: How much longer can this last?

The 90-minute dumpster fire, street brawl, fiasco, expletive-deleted storm – pick your description -- still had nearly 30 agonizing minutes to go.

The way President Donald Trump behaved, he seemed determined to ensure he’d never again have to debate Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump broke the debate rules his campaign had agreed to, insulted Biden repeatedly and made many baseless claims.

His blab-athon – by one count he interrupted Biden or moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News more than 120 times – was over the top.

It was classic, classless Trump -- shocking but not surprising.

Trump is a showman, and his fans love his “gladiator” style. This time, even his allies said his jabs missed the mark.

Biden did not take Trump’s bait. He mostly kept his cool, though he called the president a “clown” and said, “Shut up, man,” when Trump was talking over him. Vigorous and sharp, Biden was not the least bit sleepy.

This doesn’t mean Biden’s performance was flawless. In a rare policy moment, he refused to say whether he supports ending the filibuster in the Senate or adding justices to the Supreme Court, both favored by progressive Democrats.

Trump again refused to offer any details of his supposed health care plan.  

The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates promised Wednesday to consider format changes so the two remaining presidential debates will be more substance oriented. Good luck with that.

Trump who trails Biden in most polls, tries to deflect attention from his record on the coronavirus by sowing confusion and distrust in our revered institutions – public education, public health and the electoral process, among others.

The president continues to claim, falsely, the only way he can lose is if Democrats steal the election.

The presidential winner should be decided Election Night, he says, even if millions of mail-in ballots are uncounted. He wants to install Amy Coney Barrett as the ninth Supreme Court justice to help settle the election.

Without evidence, he constantly claims Democrats will flood the polls with fraudulent votes and voters. Meanwhile, voter intimidation and suppression are in the air.

Trump and his family are recruiting an “army” of supporters to watch for fraud at early voting places and on Election Day.

“We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump’s Election Security Operation,” Don Trump Jr. said in a video the Trump campaign posted on social media Sept. 23.

President Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox: “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement and we’re going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys” at the polls.

But when Trump observers tried Tuesday to enter early voting places in Philadelphia, they were turned away. Trump tweeted:

“Wow. Won’t let Poll Watchers & Security into Philadelphia Voting Places. There is only one reason why. Corruption!!! Must have a fair Election.”

Three exclamation points do not make corruption the only possible reason poll-watchers were denied entry. As usual there’s more to the story.

Tuesday was the first day of early voting in a few satellite locations where people could register and vote. Rules are different at those locations than at regular polling places, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Election officials are also following safety restrictions because of the pandemic, the paper said.

Every state sets its own election rules. In Virginia, a poll watcher must be registered to vote, and the state limits on the number of poll watchers allowed per party in polling place.

As we go into the final weeks of the 2020 campaign, we can expect more Trumpian efforts to erode confidence in the election.

But remember this: Our neighbors, mostly volunteers, work the long hours at the polls and tabulate the ballots. State officials, not Trump, certify the winners.

I’ve been a city poll worker, and I know how hard these volunteers work for a fair election.

After the debate, analysts kept using the same word to describe it: chaos. Messy and stinky work too.

I won’t be surprised if democracy’s longest hour and a half was a preview of the election chaos ahead.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



  1. Thanks for another excellent column. I was stunned at what I saw and heard. I've experience every debate since Nixon/Kennedy, but never imagined that what we saw was possible. But it was. God help us!

    1. Many thanks, Dan. It was a terrible night for America and our standing in the world.