By Tom Baxter
Is it better to debate a robot or an empty podium? That’s a tough question, as Sunday’s debates demonstrated.
Because U.S. Sen. David Perdue ducked the Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk-Young debate, Jon Ossoff got to debate an empty podium Sunday afternoon. The Democratic challenger made the most of it, repeatedly hammering Perdue for his questionable stock trades, his isolation from Georgia voters and his votes against more COVID relief.
Ossoff may have turned in the best performance in either debate, but he did so for an audience that was a small fraction of those who tuned in later in the evening for the nationally televised, prime time debate between Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock. While Perdue exposed himself to ridicule for running away from a fight, he may have done no worse than he did in his last debate in Savannah before the general election, when Ossoff practically ran him off the stage.
Warnock had a tougher time with the robot.
Loeffler woodenly cycled through a half-dozen or so canned phrases — “radical liberal Raphael Warnock,” “Living the American Dream,” etc., sticking close to her Trump-loving base in language as inoffensive to Gov. Brian Kemp and suburban women as possible. But she showed up, and she faced a much less aggressive Democrat than the one who debated the podium earlier.
Except when prompted, Warnock didn’t ask for time to respond once during this debate. I can’t remember that in any debate in a major race. He had some good prepared lines but in general he came off like he thought he was ahead in this race, which is ill-advised no matter what the last poll said. It still is, without question, politically risky for a black man to attack a white woman as aggressively as Ossoff punched at the podium, which may explain some of this.
It doesn’t explain why Warnock was so reticent to give a direct answer to nearly every question, from how big the next federal bailout should be to whether the Supreme Court should be enlarged, to how he squares religion and politics.
The debates ended a week packed with months’ worth of political news in Georgia, including President Donald Trump’s Saturday morning phone call to Kemp in a last-minute attempt to enlist his aid in overturning the presidential election, Kemp’s refusal to call a special session, Rudy Giuliani’s visit to the Golden Dome and subsequent COVID diagnosis, and of course Trump’s rally before several thousand maskless, high-spirited supporters in Valdosta Saturday night.
Much has been made of the potential for the Trump-Kemp feud to dampen the Republicans’ enthusiasm in the two Senate runoff elections, and Trump’s curt recognition of the two Senate candidates he was there to campaign for might seem to fit in that narrative. But the less this crowd saw of Perdue and Loeffler, the better for them. These voters will turn out faithfully to vote Republican in the runoff not because of any particular affection for the candidates, but because the one they’d really come to see urged them to do so.
“Now, a lot of people, friends of mine say, ‘Let’s not vote. We’re not going to vote because we’re angry about the presidential…’ And they’re friends of mine,” said the president, never one to cut ties with any group of angry Americans. That expression of protest, he warned, would turn the country over to the “radical left.”
Trump has an ability to personalize his politics in such a way that his own grievances over the course of a two-hour speech become progessively intertwined the general grievances of his audience,
“The left lies, they cheat and they steal… They investigate you and they prosecute you. The moment you question them, they try and intimidate you. They call you a poor American. You’re not a good American. You don’t love our country,” he said in Valdosta.
It wasn’t really the people who’d waited hours to see him who have been investigated and prosecuted, not most of them, anyway. But a lot of them do feel they’ve been talked down to and had their patriotism questioned, and not only because they support Trump. His definition of “the left” is broad enough to include a lot of things they don’t like about their lives, and flexible enough to include what he doesn’t like about his.