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Nevada state seal. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Tuesday night’s presidential debate was one of the best things to happen to modern politics in a long time. 

It’s not because the debate was in any way edifying or inspiring. You have to be a true, blind tribalist to think either candidate did a good job, or was honest. There was no substantive discussion of the many issues facing our nation. The format was designed specifically to set up soundbite wars, not any actual debate over either philosophy or policy. The moderator impeded, rather than facilitated, any illumination or meaningful dialog.

But it wasn’t useless. Far from it.

There hasn’t been a substantive presidential debate in this country in years, maybe decades. I think you have to go all the way back to 1984. This week’s “debate” wasn’t any less substantive or more childish or poorly moderated than any in the 21st Century — it was just orders of magnitude more honest about what these events actually are. Others have been more gentile, but that’s not a synonym for intelligent or informative. The Obama-Romney debates were some of the worst – childish (and incorrect) retorts, moderators with thumbs on the scale, and no time to really get into an issue, or have a real back-and-forth. The campaigns agree to these formats specifically because anyone can say nothing for two minutes.

We would have been better off with this first Trump-Biden scrap had they simply mixed it up on their own for an hour and a half. It certainly couldn’t have been worse. Why not let the discussion flow freely? Why not let the debaters engage each other directly? Why have a moderator at all? Just two guys slinging arrows at each other on stage is all we need, and if they can’t handle it, they can’t handle being the president.

The usefulness of it, then, was to show just how dumb even our more formal political discourse has become. But it also showed how little we should trust people who still want to wade into the snake pit that is politics, and how limited their power should be.

Social media was unusually subdued afterward, at least on my feeds. Almost everyone seemed to know their guy had not had his proudest night. No one crowed. No one claimed victory. A few distorted soundbites were woven into ads and breathless Twitter histrionics, but that’s about it. For a time, there was universal, bipartisan understanding that it was a clown show. It was exhausting, and a reminder that the people who run for office are just human beings, imperfect sinners who are not capable of “running” economies or millions of lives or anything else. It’s probably ephemeral, but it was a silver lining nonetheless.

It’s a far cry from people believing Barack Obama when he claimed he would be stopping the rising of the seas. And ultimately, it’s a reminder that we are our own best governors, and that we don’t need (or deserve) to be supervised by grumpy old men in a city far, far away. The idea of either of these guys being responsible for your health care system is the best argument ever devised against socialized medicine.

***

Most politicians just aren’t very impressive people. I like a lot of them personally, regardless of party. But most run for office because they want to be someone, not because they want to actually accomplish anything, as their records of fecklessness and pandering and flip-flopping show. Once in office, their main goal becomes staying there, which means smiling more and talking (and doing) less. (Trump did himself no favors at the debate, but on this score he stands out. He’s not wrong when he says he’s accomplished more in 47 months than Biden – a stereotype of a politician if there ever was one – has in 47 years.)

And when they do acquire real power, it starts to become awfully tempting to abuse it. Think Governor Sisolak’s ideologically driven approach to who is allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights, and who is punished for it. Think the tiny but nonetheless extant number of dishonest or violent cops. (If you want to defund the police but give government agents sole control over the health care decisions of every American, you suffer from a uniquely powerful kind of cognitive dissonance.)  And there is something of a tradition of Democratic Senators from Nevada falsely accusing political opponents of serious crimes that were, in truth, never actually committed. 

Our current attorney general, Aaron Ford, blundered into this ignoble category this week when he angrily threatened to prosecute poll watchers for intimidating voters based on something Donald Trump didn’t actually say. (Whenever a politician or political activist uses the phrase “dog whistle,” what they’re really doing is just making up a thing they wish their adversary said, so they can attack a straw man. If you can hear the whistle, turns out you’re the dog.)

Poll watching by independent citizens is a critical check on any election run by the government that some portion of the electorate would like to replace. Talk about chilling people from exercising that oversight right — who is to know what Aaron Ford considers “intimidating” poll watching versus regular poll watching?  

Recklessly threatening to convict people of felonies and throw them in prison over what is essentially a political dispute is a pretty awful look for any prosecutor, especially when the guy with that put-you-in-prison power seems to be focused entirely on a single politician, party, or group of activists. Frankly, I’m far less intimidated by a scowling dude in a MAGA hat at my polling place than I am by a man with the power to file a criminal complaint and seek a warrant is preemptively telling me what kind of government watchdog I should be. Ordinarily, I roll my eyes at the president’s over-the-top rhetoric about crooked elections, but Ford’s comments make me think Mr. Trump has a point — why would an attorney general want to make an election less transparent?

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The irony is that the kindest thing we can do for our political class is to hold them in low esteem. Personality cult sycophants or “blue no matter who” style partisan tribalists teach their politicians that their support can be taken for granted, and their concerns ignored. It means that competency or conduct in office is all but ignored, especially when performance falls short. It makes a less accountable government, and then lets politics seep into every aspect of our lives (this, in case you have to be told, is a very bad thing.)

I hope we never again have a “debate” like we saw this week. I hope moderators stay out of the fray (or better, disappear as an institution altogether). I hope the debaters grow up, and are able to have an hour-long conversation with each other about both the high and low points of our exceptional nation. But above all, I hope on all levels, our politicians come away humbled by the realization that even in the best of circumstances, their competence is limited, and that we as individuals retake the power over our day-to-day lives we have been far too eager to give away for some illusory sense of safety or “being taken care of.”  

Coda:  This piece was written largely before the president’s COVID diagnosis.  Strangely, this event also seems to have taken the temperature of the country down a few notches — more humility from Trump’s most vociferous acolytes, and beyond the standard glee at the illness or death of a conservative from darker corners of the leftward side of the internet, humanity towards the President that’s been sorely lacking since his election.  

For me, it changes nothing about my attitude towards our too-heavy and unconstitutional responses.  Rather, it is a reminder that nothing is accomplished without risk, but that we admire risk-takers because they do sometimes fall prey to the dangers they agree to face.  (I’ve long been a fan of Teddy Roosevelt.)  Like everyone else who contracts COVID, may the Trumps recover quickly, and may we not use such an event as an excuse to regress into our basements when the need to resume our ordinary lives is so very great.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]

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