[plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more that changes, the more it’s the same thing]
“Would you like a nice low-income housing project next to your suburban beautiful ranch style house? Generally speaking, no,” Trump said in a rally at Muskegon, Michigan last week. “I saved your suburbs — women — suburban women, you’re supposed to love Trump,” he implored. At the same rally Trump attacked Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat recently subject of an assassination plot by domestic terrorists, and he attacked NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, who had moderated a town-hall the President participated in.
It has been widely reported that he was advised to change his tenor in the next duel with Biden. He needed to be less like the Don, more like the President of the United States as he officially is.
On the other side, Biden needed to show some charisma. True if he was bullied to no end by the interruptions and snide comments by Trump, he also showed none of his passion for his favorite topics. Where was the righteous indignation of the moderate missing voice? Trump was roundly condemned by most, yours truly included, for being boorish, uncouth, loose with facts and data and proud of his lack of inquiry. On the same token, you really did not get a taste what really ticks Biden, what motivates him to rise up to the challenge after having ceded the throne to queen-designate Hillary Clinton four years back.
He had new challenges ahead. Though nowhere as much of a bombshell as in 2016 cycle, October surprise did appear just like clockwork. It was to be seen how he handled pesky questions of his son’s indulgences.
It is a testament to the capacity of these two septuagenarians that they both rose to their challenges.
Trump tried, honestly, and it showed. As The New York Times put it, he succeeded “in acting like the type of person he claims to disdain: a typical politician in a debate. He spoke with an inside voice while saluting his own pandemic response. He interrupted far less. He thanked the moderator for letting him chime in and did not sound sarcastic while doing so.” Even when the camera showed split image, and you were half expecting him to roll his eyes while making hand movements that mock decorum, he did not. You could argue he had a low barrier to success, but he did scale it.
Biden showed his passion and his poise, even mettle. Trump tried many times to veer the discussion to an unsubstantiated claim about Biden’s son’s business dealings. Even if these allegations have few takers outside of the Fox / Breitbart echo chamber, they could derail the discourse. Biden did not let that happen, deftly moving away from discussion about first families to kitchen table conversations. And he showed passion. Talking about immigration and missing children, his voice almost cracked. Talking about the environment, he reminded an upbringing of his that resonates. Talking about Coronavirus, he reminded me about the empty table at Thanksgiving. He knew who he was representing, and made sure we did too.
You also have to give a big thumbs up to Kristina Welker, the moderator, and The White House Correspondent for NBC. She had a superhuman power that no moderator was ever granted before, she could mute the microphone of the sitting President and the former Vice President, she used it sparingly. The two candidates offered starkly different views and visions, just like you expect in a regular Presidential Debate. You almost had to pinch yourself to remind that it is 2020 and not 1976.
Unlike in 1976, there was no gaffe by either. Biden prepped meticulously, and Trump kept himself in check.
But you learned very little new. It almost felt like both were regurgitating their talking points. There was back and forth, but within context, both stayed true to the script. Just like it goes on in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for confirmations to the highest court, a candidate is successful if they are sufficiently bland so as not to be offensive. They can not produce a devastating soundbite, especially two weeks before the election, and they cannot afford to come as pusillanimous. As long as the two rules are met, and they are reasonably well-informed, the battle is won.
In today’s debate, they both won because it was a draw, and, it showed in snap polls. The more they changed, the more they stayed the course. In these turbulent days of 2020, it is a very good thing.
[Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own].