Debate: Much Heat and Only a Little Light

Last night’s presidential debate was a disappointment, to put it mildly. It could have done much more to illuminate the differences between the candidates on policy. Instead we got much boorish behavior, much evasion of questions and issues, and much less illumination than we should have gotten.

For what it’s worth, here are a few notes. A transcript is available at the Daily Mail. Video is available at C-SPAN.

Mr. Biden said, “I’m totally opposed to defunding the police offices.” Good. But he certainly has not been active in opposing the defunding movement within his party. His own running mate praised the mayor of Los Angeles for cutting police funding.

And what about the Democratic Party? Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV of France reportedly,  infamously said “l’état, c’est moi,” the state is me. Last night, Joe Biden undoubtedly said, “The party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party.” He went on to say, “The platform of the Democratic Party is what I, in fact, approved of, what I approved of.” The platform does not expressly call for defunding the police, but it does say, twice, that minority neighborhoods are “overpoliced.” That certainly seems like a call to pull back policing, inconsistent with the wishes of a solid majority of the residents, as documented here, and inconsistent with Mr. Biden’s statement last night.

The “totally opposed” statement is good to hear, but Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party generally have some more work to do before they are credible in their rejection of this exceptionally dangerous and stupid idea.

Mr. Biden went on to call for “community policing like we had before where the officers get to know the people in the communities.” That is, precisely, the model of policing long advocated by the late George Kelling.  It is a model often known by the oversimplified title of “broken windows policing,” with order maintenance being one important aspect, but not the whole concept. That model has been under sustained attack from the political left for many years now. “That’s when crime went down, it didn’t go up,” says Mr. Biden. Right, especially in New York, when it had Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Then New Yorkers elected Bill DiBlasio, who took a sledgehammer to the good work that had gone before. Is Mr. Biden willing to take on DiBlasio et al. and defend and promote the Kelling model of policing? That would be good news, but I have my doubts.

There was a confused exchange over the oddly perennial issue of Mr. Trump’s willingness to condemn right-wing extremist groups. Chris Wallace asked, “You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left wing extremist groups. But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia group and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.” Mr. Trump answered, “Sure, I’m willing to do that.” That would seem to be a sufficient answer. There is no difference of substance between “I am willing to condemn white supremacists” and “I condemn white supremacists.” However, both Mr. Wallace and Mr. Biden pressed him to “do it,” and Mr. Trump understandably did not seem to know what further they wanted. He finally said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” (The Daily Mail transcript is not correct on this.) The “stand back” directly answers the second half of Mr. Wallace’s question. It’s not clear what the “stand by” means. Omission of the condemnation part might be just in the heat of the moment, but it certainly gives Mr. Trump’s opponents to repeat their attacks over the Charlottesville matter.

So I would expect to see in Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed this morning something like, “Just to be clear, I condemn white supremacist groups and all forms of racism.” But it’s not there. Mr. Trump undermines his own campaign by omission of this simple clarification, saying something he already said he was willing to say. Update: Later on Wednesday, in response to a question, Mr. Trump did say something along that line.

One of the reasons that the above exchange was confused is that, as soon as he gave what he thought was a sufficient answer, Mr. Trump pivoted to the point that most of the agitation resulting in violence associated with the protests this summer has come from “left-wing” groups such as Antifa. Mr. Biden jumped in with the assertion that Antifa is not a “group.” To be sure, Antifa does not have a coherent national organization, but just as surely there are smaller, organized groups under that banner using violence and destruction for political ends.

The focus should not have been on whether the people wreaking havoc are mostly right-wing or left-wing or whether their structure qualifies as a “group.” These are distractions. The focus should be on the failure of local authorities to take sufficient action against them. Too often, they were quickly released after arrest and not charged with the offenses they committed.

These are generally local decisions, not within the power of President to change, but a national leader can call attention to them. However, when asked by Mr. Wallace if he had called on the local officials of his own party to take stronger action, Mr. Biden begged off, saying, “I don’t hold public office.” What does that have to do with it? As a major party’s presidential nominee he is certainly in a position to “jawbone” local officials who are responding inadequately. Mr. Wallace pressed on, “You had never called for the leaders in Portland and in Oregon to call and bring in the National Guard and knock off a 100 days of riots.” Mr. Biden responded, “They can in fact take care of it if he [Mr. Trump] just stays out of the way.” Now that is preposterous.

There is more to discuss from this debate, but I will end this post at this point. Suffice it to say that neither candidate was impressive last night. Those of us steeped in criminal justice issues know that overall the Republicans tend to be considerably better for fighting crime in their legislation, prosecution decisions, and judicial appointments. The picture from the debate, regrettably, was not as clear as it could have been.