The great debate last Tuesday between U.S. President Donald Trump and his would-be replacement, former vice-president Joe Biden, achieved a major goal: It made Canadian politics, politicians and the election system used to grant the right to govern look sane in comparison to the system now playing out south of the 49th parallel.
In our constitutional democracy with its first-past-the-post electoral system, all Canadian voters decide which party (or parties) governs. We do not have a convoluted republic with an Electoral College system that weighs and allocates votes jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Our prime minister is not a directly-elected, all-powerful commander-in-chief. He serves as long as he can inspire the loyalty of his cabinet and his caucus and, in the case of minority governments, the House of Commons, thus the people.
Not for us, a U.S. federal election where a final decision on who will run our country can be made by the Electoral College – with an outcome that could well be different from the wishes of the majority of voters. (Use your favourite search machine to find How the Electoral College Works in Six Minutes.) It provides a better understanding than I could ever provide. I will confine myself to fair (or foul, if you disagree) comment on the non-debate between Trump and Biden with occasional asides on highly paid journalists who must have flunked the basic tests of elementary news reporting.
While trolling TV prior to the entrance of the gladiators, I sat fascinated and unbelieving as veteran reporters probed the minds of the men and women who, so we were told, had been part of the teams preparing Trump and Biden for the critical battle then just minutes away.
Such preparation is normal – and wise in these days when one wrong answer can be a disaster for political ambitions. The practice of having the participants face every type of question – sneaky or blunt, fast ball or slow ball, or a favoured curve ball variation of “have you stopped beating your wife, answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
So, I was amused more than shocked when I heard veteran reporters from the bottomless CNN vault of talking heads asking individual members of the Biden-Trump “advisory teams” the same questions, with one so dumb it’s hard to believe: “What strategy will your candidate (Trump or Biden) be using in the debate?” This is akin to asking a rival coach for a copy of the playbook before the game starts. It wasn’t surprising when the question went unanswered.
Some media prognosticators did get the thrust of the debate right when they based their forecasts on past performance and conjectured Trump would be unable to control his arrogant, spoiled, spiteful, childish, tantrum-throwing ways. He couldn’t. Within minutes Trump – his face florid and puffed with malevolence – rudely tried to domineer the moderator while he launched, unimpeded by any rules of decency or rules of order, his attack.
It was noisy, all sounding brass and crashing cymbal, but far from wilting under the often-untruthful assault. Biden kept his cool, smiled sympathetically from time to time as though feeling sorry for a president so out of control. There were a few flashes of return anger, but only one with voice raised when he told Trump to “shut up, man.”
When he denounced the president as a purveyor of lies and repeater of unproven gossip, he did so in a calm and articulate voice. When he talked of hopes and aspirations should he become the next president, he looked full face to the camera and spoke to his unseen TV audience with respect.
It wasn’t Franklin Delano Roosevelt nor John F. Kennedy, but it was a steady, calm and thoughtful voice in a time when calm and thoughtful leadership is required.
Most observers in the country – where opinions matter and winners of such debates are essential – declared Biden, the winner. I would align myself with them but with two footnotes:
1 – It would be fairer to say President Trump lost the debate with a clear revelation of his arrogant, bullying and boastful “I, I and I again” demeanour. 2 – And, I must repeat my opening thanks to the participants, politicians, pundits and TV networks that gave Canadians an inside look at the terribly flawed U.S. system and left me, and I’m sure many others, thankful for what we have in “our home and native land.”