To America’s Eight Year Olds…Stand By
Twenty-eight years ago, I watched all three presidential debates at home with my dad. The I992 campaign gave America an incumbent Republican president widely viewed as a WWII hero, experienced in public policy and clearly a decent man debating a young, articulate southern Democratic governor who possessed a natural ease and political talent that can’t be taught or replicated. We saw the best of two very different generations respectfully debate the substance of the day and each make a case why he could build a better bridge to the 21st century.
That debate inspired 8 year old me to ask questions, form opinions, and make my parents buy me books about American presidents. It started a lifelong passion that’s turned into a political career. Last night’s “debate” made me think of today’s second graders getting their first exposure to presidential politics. My fear is that after the first 15 minutes, they probably changed the channel, or more likely closed out the window on their iPads— compelled to google seemingly more ‘noble’ professions than politics, like: “how much do bankers on Wall Street make?” or “how can I start selling reverse mortgages like Tom Selleck?”
Trump wants all of us to say: “that was a train wreck!” and “they’re both terrible!” It was his strategy in 2016 and he’s going back to the well in 2020. He knows he can’t get to 50% in the swing states. He knows voter opinions on his lack of character, blatant racism, a botched Covid-19 response, and the fragile economy are baked. He knows he’s losing suburban women and seniors. So instead of wasting 90 minutes of his time trying to win votes and make himself look better, he focused on tearing down his opponent and questioning the very legitimacy of elections. He offered no vision for his second term or any accountability for his first. Biden showed up to debate under old rules and old norms. He was not an equal accomplice in what happened last night and one of the only nice things I can say about his performance is that he didn’t punch the president. Well done.
Like his long business and short political careers, Donald Trump defrauded the people last night. He cheated us out of yet another democratic norm: substantive debate. I doubt he’ll be rewarded in the polls. If he is, shame on this country. Joe Biden won the debate without having a strong performance. He was caught off guard, as we all were, by a president who was once elected to “shake things up” but proved to be nothing more than a blender without a lid. Biden had strong moments when he looked directly in the camera to make points and remind us all that he knew we were still watching. But anyone with eyes and ears last night could tell that he was a victim on that stage and we all had no choice but to watch Donald Trump break the agreed upon rules of the debate.
If specifics are what you want, I‘ll leave you with this. Joe Biden didn’t tell white supremacist groups to “stand by.” He didn’t lie about his taxes. He didn’t lie about crime rates, health care, Covid-19, or threaten to stay in office if he loses the race. He didn’t fail to show any empathy or sympathy to his opponent who lost his oldest son to cancer— a son who served honorably in Iraq and as Attorney General of Delaware. Joe Biden did none of that and that’s why he won. He won by not being terrible.
To America’s 8 year olds: I want to believe we’re better than this. I want to believe that politics can be a noble profession worthy of your hopes and dreams. I want to tell you that we all live in a “shining city on a hill.” But I can’t. Each generation of Americans has to work and sacrifice to make those statements true. Hopefully your parents get this right in November. Otherwise, you will have no choice but to become the new “Greatest Generation” to get us back on track. I’ll be rooting for you.
Rob Ellsworth is a partner and cofounder of The Majority Group in Washington, D.C. He served 5 members of Congress, in both political parties, as one of the youngest legislative directors and chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill. Ellsworth is a native Ohioan and graduate of Georgetown University.
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