Debate ‘Train Wreck’ Shows US in No Position To Lecture the World

Reprinted from Responsible Statecraft (Quincy Institute) with permission.

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.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Senior Advisor at the Quincy Institute and Contributing Editor at Responsible Statecraft. She comes to QI from The American Conservative, where for the last three years she served as the magazine’s executive editor and remains a co-host on the Empire Has No Clothes podcast. Follow her on Twitter @VlahosAtQuincy.

5 thoughts on “Debate ‘Train Wreck’ Shows US in No Position To Lecture the World”

    1. *for property-owning white males. Women couldn’t vote until the 20th century, segregation was legal and Jim Crow laws were on the books until a little over 50 years ago. People tend to forget that not everyone in America was granted equal rights under the law and there are people in the streets right now who will declare that ‘the system’ is still heavily biased against non-whites – from the local law enforcement and judiciary to international corporations’ hiring practices and at a large number of points in between.

      1. It wasn’t that segregation was “legal” (and for the most part still is). It was that segregation was mandated by law, which is a somewhat different thing.

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