The dire debate

| July 1, 2024

The current and former president of the United States faced off on Friday in a first debate of its kind in US history. The debate protocols, agreed to by each side, were rigid, with microphones designated to shut off to prevent the candidates from going over time. This made for a much more civil debate—on the surface. 

Substantively, the debate suffered from incoherence, misdirection, and general lack of relatable talking points—so busy were the candidates in responding to the outrageous charges of the other. There was no shortage of absurdities throughout the spectacle; one minute on the question of who is the worst president of all time is, by any stretch, one minute too long. Another was Trump’s ostensible self-love. He is the “greatest president in the history of the United States,” didn’t you know? 

One can be forgiven for thinking that politicians in America don’t have serious or substantive debates on policy and security issues. Indeed, part of the process of legislation there is producing unreadably long and terse documents with the intention of hiding spending or other provisions deep within the text. Like two ships passing in the night, the two sides have stopped truly talking to each other. Certainly, that is the impression viewers were left with.   

Low on details. High on hyperbole.

Trump’s debate strategy, such as one existed, could be reduced to reinforcing the big lie (which got bigger with each iteration). No doubt intended to hit Biden and the democrats where they are most vulnerable, the one constant, and indeed all-consuming issue, for Trump was immigration.

The points were returned to, reflexively, throughout the night: “the [US] border is the most dangerous place in the world”; they [illegal immigrants] are living in luxury hotels in New York. But our veterans are dying on the streets”; 19-20 million “illegals” are “going to take Black and Hispanic jobs”; Biden is putting millions of “them” on social security. 

Presidential-candidate debates don’t really impact voting behaviours except to reinforce the base. There is no fact checking, and the lies will only later be parsed, discredited, and disqualified, but only for those who read them. Fox News, still the most watched news channel in the United States, will do little to deconstruct the fiction from what has been promulgated. 

The observable and perhaps most impacting outcome, then, is the performance. Trump was more lively, more confident, even if much of what he said was nonsense. The height of Trump’s detail came in his discussion of Roe v Wade and his attack on abortion. The height of his incoherence came with the question of the 6 January insurrection and Trump’s attempt to lay blame on Nancy Pelosi and her daughter.  

President Joe Biden was characteristically more nuanced and detailed than his competitor, however without charisma, his points lacked heft, and this left the president responding more to Trump’s quips than consolidating his case for another four years.  

Ukraine and Israel

We are left equally starved of substantive discussion on the question of foreign policy. When asked if Vladimir Putin’s terms for ending the invasion of Ukraine were acceptable, answers again danced around the issue. According to Trump, “If we had a real president that was respected by Putin, he never would have invaded Ukraine.” Biden “did nothing to stop [the invasion], in fact I think he encouraged it,” Trump remarked. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was likewise mocked, albeit for being good at his job. “Everytime he comes here he walks away with $60 million, he’s the greatest salesman ever.” Americans were getting ripped off by Ukraine (and NATO) under Biden. Though, Trump did concede that Putin’s terms for surrender were “unacceptable.”

Biden drew attention to the importance of NATO, which Trump has threatened to walk away from. Abandoning NATO would be an undeniably bad decision, if for no other reason that “NATO allies have provided as much funding for Ukraine” as America, remarked Biden. Deterrence is not an easily quantifiable value. NATO’s utility is, like all good policy, invisible until something goes wrong. Trump gave few indications that he would move beyond the transactional accounting so present in his last administration on the issue. This makes his attempt at unpredictability a little all too predictable.  

On the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Biden touted his peace plan, which he promised had the support of the UN Security Council and 50 states across the world. Across the three phases we would see a temporary ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces, and the release of hostages–only if Hamas would agree to a meeting.  

Trump offered no peace plan at all, and only after some back-and-forth on who was Israel’s greatest friend did the two come back to accusing the other of being weak. Trump’s terms, Biden was “like a Palestinian… a weak one.” Trump was sharp again in his indefensible attack: like Ukraine, the Israel/Palestine issue would not have erupted if he had been president. Trump made it clear the Benjamin Netanyahu should not be held back. Biden agreed that “Hamas cannot be allowed to continue.”  

A worried world looks on

One must look beyond the bluster to discern what practical takeaways might give audiences a glimpse of how one or the other might act once in power. Here, Biden has the advantage, and his answer to the question of old age fragility was to point to his record. Beyond performative politics, the candidates must run a difficult and over-burdened government. In this, Biden has done the better job. His leadership team has been consistent across the past three and half years. By contrast, Trump’s former leadership team has completely abandoned him.  

For the rest of the world, the results look precarious whichever way the wind blows. Biden is old and fragile, and may not last another term. Trump is still bombastic, crude, vain, and self-absorbed, and many will be wondering if the world can survive another four years. 

This article was written by Adam Bartley and Jade Kingston, the Australian Outlook Book Reviews Coordinator. She is a fourth-year student of International Security Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, minoring in Bahasa Indonesia. It was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.