Biden looked composed and in command of the facts. He did not back down and he did not get bullied. It was an impressive display of statesmanship. One might even call it presidential
Election debates are all about expectations and the winner of the debate is not necessarily the candidate who bests the other in argumentation, but the one who did what he or she needed to do, given what his or her goals were going into the debate.
I think, for instance, of the 2000 debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Almost all contemporaneous commentators thought that Gore won the debates handily, but they were wrong.
There is no question that Gore got the better of Bush in terms of argumentation, but that was what people expected to happen.
Going into the debate, both Gore and Bush had perceived negatives. Gore's was that he was an unlikeable stiff, and he did little to dispel this perception on the debate stage. Bush's was that he was a moron. And while he did not get the better of Gore in their three presidential debates, he was not made a fool of, either. He showed that he belonged on the same stage as Gore and reassured people who thought he was too dumb to be president.
The rest is history.
Which brings me to this year's debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden and the unedifying spectacle that was their first debate Tuesday night (US time) in Ohio.
What did each man need to do to win the debate and which of them succeeded?
The main thrust of the case against Biden made by the Trump campaign over the past few months has been that Biden is senile and too old to be president. The campaign relentlessly pushed the image of Biden as a doddering old fool who would be battered into befuddlement by Trump's razor sharp debating skills and embarrassed in front of the American public. They were confidently expecting Trump to humiliate Biden, if not with his superior rhetorical skills, then certainly by bullying him into submission with a crushing display of Alpha Male domination.
It didn't happen. Biden looked composed and in command of the facts. He did not back down and he did not get bullied. It was an impressive display of statesmanship. One might even call it presidential. He kept his focus and he kept his discipline. He did not allow himself to be goaded or baited by Trump's dull-witted jibes. And he snapped back just enough to show the voters that he was nobody's fool and had the backbone to take Trump on and by extension the world.
Did Biden leave some money on the table? Sure he did. His answers could have been crisper in some places. He could have hit back more forcefully in others. But Trump failed to intimidate him and signally failed to get the better of him.
Trump was his typical obnoxious self. He bullied and blustered, he tried to substitute obvious falsehoods and schoolyard taunts for cogent argumentation and statements of policy. But the only people who could have been shocked by his performance were those who have not been paying attention for the past four years.
There is no mystery about Trump. We now all know who he is and what he stands for. There is nothing new we can learn about him in a 90-minute debate that we did not already know.
It might seem shocking that some 60 million plus Americans look at Trump and see a president, but here we are. They know what he is about and they are happy to vote for him anyway. For many, his odiousness is a feature, not a bug. They love him for his vileness. The rest don't care. They just want to win.
So there was really nothing he could have said or done on the debate stage in Ohio that would change people's minds about him. If his unfitness for office was not already apparent to you, then there was nothing new on display in the first debate to change your mind.
The key though was Biden's performance. The debate was a referendum on whether he is up for the job of commander in chief. Many were expecting him to stumble, for him to be exposed in some way, if not as unfit for the job then at least unequal to Trump's bullying.
Neither happened. Biden stood his ground and showed the American public that he is ready and capable. That is what he needed to do. There was only one president on the debate stage on Tuesday night, and it wasn't Donald Trump.