U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign, September 29, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Debate ‘train wreck’ shows US in no position to lecture the world

It was called ‘“the worst debate in American history” by more than one pundit and cable news anchor.

The graphic descriptions of Tuesday night’s presidential debate between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden began mounting on social media and spilling over into Wednesday’s headline stories. The most used: “train wreck” and “dumpster fire.” CNN’s Dana Bash figured it was the night to break protocol: “I’m just going to say it like it is. That was a shit show.”

The highly anticipated event devolved early into bickering and interruptions, with moderator, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, having to reprimand the president several times to wait his turn, reminding him at one point that his campaign had agreed to the terms for letting his opponent speak for two minutes, uninterrupted, during responses. 

The evening rolled over the broad domestic issues that only emphasized today’s domestic divide: Trump’s Supreme Court nomination, the coronavirus pandemic, economic recession, racial strife. Rather than leading to a substantive discussion on the candidates’ records or plans, each question immediately gave way to squabbling and sharp personal attacks. Biden called Trump a “racist” and a “clown.” Trump repeatedly and aggressively demanded Biden talk about his son Hunter’s business in Ukraine; at one point he sneered that Hunter was “kicked out of the military” for “cocaine use.”

To say the least, foreign policy, especially in any manner that Quincy Institute staff had hoped would be explored Tuesday night, was not on the menu. Aside from a rapid volley about Trump blaming China for COVID and his early response during the pandemic, there was no talk about the trade war or increasing tensions with Beijing. The words Iran or North Korea never passed their lips. The only mention of Russia was Trump insisting one could not trust their COVID numbers. The issue of climate change and alternative energy actually invoked China, for a minute. (Trump blamed them for lagging in pollution control; QI’s Rachel Odell was able to provide a speedy riposte).

But given the way issues like health care became an excuse for launching ad hominem attacks or cast each other’s leadership in apocalyptic terms, it might be best they didn’t talk about foreign policy last night.

“For once we might be the big winners if this debate concludes without ever mentioning our issue area!” declared Eli Clifton, QI’s investigative reporter.

But there was a more serious takeaway by members of the Quincy Institute staff: it was clear from the embarrassing spectacle that the United States needs to be taking care of its house first, before telling other countries what to do. In other words, that “shining light on the hill” needs a massive light bulb change.

The only right thing is to put a pause on our democracy promotion programs until we’ve fixed things at home,” noted QI Executive Vice President Trita Parsi. Earlier he had tweeted, “Imagine the number of countries panicking that we might decide to export democracy to them.”

The idea that the world was watching — in horror, or laughing, possibly both -— was not lost.

“The debate said all it needed to say about foreign policy. Who could watch it and think the United States is the indispensable nation that must dominate the world by force?” quipped Stephen Wertheim, Deputy Director of Programs and Research for QI.

QI President Andrew Bacevich, blaming Trump for the mortifying display, noted how the debate was just a symptom of America’s civil degradation. He invoked the first televised presidential debate in 1960. “From Kennedy vs. Nixon to Trump vs. Biden:  one expression of American decline.”

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