The Most Important Thing Biden Did During Tuesday’s Debate

The president did his best to make the whole thing an unwatchable nightmare, but this one answer saved the night.

Biden stands on the stage, smiling as he grips his podium
Joe Biden at Tuesday’s presidential debate in Cleveland. Win McNamee/Getty Images

No one would blame you if you didn’t last through the entire 90-plus minutes of the first presidential “debate” Tuesday night. It was like watching toddlers do battle over the tub of paste while the substitute kindergarten teacher ineffectually implores them to please not eat the paste. Joe Biden did his level best not to be dragged into the swirling miasma of Donald Trump’s hellscape worldview, in which COVID is imaginary, violent city carnage at the hands of antifa is real, climate change simply isn’t happening, a COVID vaccine is imminent, and the good and noble white supremacists of America are standing by to save us all. But Trump was very insistent in his lying. That’s all he’s got. Even the moderator, Chris Wallace, who didn’t fact-check Trump’s answers but asked fact-based questions, spent the bulk of his evening rooting around in Trump’s brain, interrupting Trump’s interruptions and on occasion shouting down Trump’s shouting.

In pure George Lakoff terms, the whole event was thus a buffet of lie sandwiches, in which Trump stated one brazen falsehood after another, as both Wallace and Biden made their best efforts to toss a little truth mustard and lettuce around, at which point Trump interrupted to repeat or exaggerate the initial lies. But there was a moment, right at the end of the debate, about an issue that matters perhaps more than any other, at which Biden ably flipped that script. Wallace asked each candidate to weigh in on what they were “prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election.”

Trump is not prepared to do this, of course, and so he took the opportunity to explain, yet again, that he has no intention of conceding defeat or conceding to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses at the polls in November. Instead, he urged his own supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” and reaffirmed that he was “counting” on a conservative Supreme Court, with a newly confirmed Amy Coney Barrett, to crown him the winner if there are any problems with the “ballots.” (Reader: There will be problems with the “ballots.”) Pressed on the complete lack of evidence of fraud in mail-in balloting, Trump insisted that it is widespread and pervasive (ballots! In creeks! Sold by mailmen! In Philadelphia!) and promised “this is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen. We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over.” Trump and his attorney general have been pushing this all-out fabrication all summer, in an effort to have the election called early, before all mail-in ballots are counted, and also to depress voter confidence in the possibility that any general election can be conclusive or fair. Again, that’s the point, and it’s the only point: He doesn’t want you to believe the election can be fair.

Here was where Joe Biden did his best work of the evening. Instead of accusing Trump, Trump’s postmaster general, Trump’s attorney general, Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, or anyone else of outright stealing the election—which has the effect of depressing the very voter confidence he needs to encourage—Biden did almost precisely what communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio has been suggesting voting advocates do in discussing “rigged elections”: He made it clear that this is not Trump’s election, but the voters’. As Shenker-Osorio puts it in an interview with Rolling Stone: “When he says I’m not going to step down—or the ‘covfefe version’ of that in his garbled way of talking—instead of repeating him, Democrats should say, ‘Over my dead body. You don’t decide how long you’re in this job. We do.’ ” Her point is that instead of succumbing to the dispiriting possibility that Trump gets to cheat and steal the vote, refocus voters on their power to stop it. More from Shenker-Osorio:

The overarching thing is: Let’s have our conversation. If Trump believes he’s going to block us from deciding our next government, he’s got another thing coming. We’re turning out in record numbers and this will be a government by and for the people. If he needs to be ushered out of the White House by force, and that seems to be what he’s asking for—if need be, we’ll deliver.

That is precisely the tack Biden took when, faced with Trump’s lies about millions of stolen ballots and fraudulent ballots and discarded ballots, he simply looked directly into the camera and named the game: “This is all about trying to dissuade people from voting because he’s trying to scare people into thinking that it’s not going to be legitimate,” Biden said. And then he built a seven-layer truth sandwich as he carefully outlined mail-in voting procedures, warned voters to allow time for every vote to be counted, described how to challenge invalidated ballots, and explained how the pandemic has complicated voting. Biden explained that Trump’s own national security experts have discredited his mail fraud claims. The words echoed President Barack Obama’s convention speech urging patience and confidence and determination in every voter. It was simple. Biden simply reminded everyone to just “show up and vote. You will determine the outcome of this election. Vote, vote, vote.”

“Vote whatever way is the best way for you,” he said. “Because he will not be able to stop you from determining the outcome of this election.”

Of course Trump sputtered and lied and tried to frighten anyone watching into giving up. Nobody wants to see their ballot in a creek or sold by cunning postmen to George Soros. Or whatever. And of course Trump also laid the groundwork for the unavoidable challenge he will eventually bring to mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or anywhere else the results are within the margin of litigation. But those are—recall—the threats and the taunts of a bully who knows he can’t win fairly, and also of a man absolutely terrified of the immense legal consequences of returning to civilian life. Trump is going to say whatever he has to say and he is going to do whatever he has to do to avoid losing, and he just vomited up a greatest-hits album of his four-year-old claims about fraud. He isn’t going to be persuaded by facts, Chris Wallace, his own appointees, or anyone else. What Biden was doing in response was reminding everyone that it’s not Donald Trump or Bill Barr or Trump’s poll watchers who will decide those facts. The voters themselves must shape the truth by voting in immense numbers while tuning out the fever dream. At that point the nightmare will end. As Vanita Gupta writes in the Washington Post:

If Trump loses, and wants to say the election wasn’t fair, he can say what he wants. But there is a system in place that he doesn’t control. A sitting president wields no direct power when it comes to how Americans vote. In nearly every state, local boards of election count the ballots. State election authorities verify these counts. Governors or secretaries of state certify that the final tally is correct. The electoral college does not depend on the president accepting the results. And a new Congress in January counts the tally transparently. There are firewalls that separate this process from the president—firewalls he has no power to override.

Voters still have courts—which have by and large rejected his speculative and fraudulent claims about inherent fraud in voting by mail—and voters still have the law itself, which makes it hard for presidents to pull off sloppy coups, as Josh Geltzer and I argued earlier this month. The real fight is in our heads. And our heads need to keep remembering that Trump’s brain has been a garbage place to visit, and also that we don’t have to live there after November.

What Biden did on Tuesday that matters more than anything else was to remind us how to keep Donald Trump out of our heads in the weeks before the election. In the most technical, brass tacks formulation he could muster, he simply told everyone who wants to be counted how to do that and where to do that and why, if they in fact do that, Donald Trump will be gone in January. The debate was a misery to the extent we had to witness—yet again—broken truth, shattered norms, and needless, abusive cruelty that Trump acts out for his base on every stage and in every forum. But it was a triumph as a mechanism for reframing the idea of power and agency and hope, none of which Donald Trump controls, and none of which should be surrendered when it is needed most.