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The Walker-Warnock Debate and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

It's entirely possible that, despite everything, Herschel Walker "won" his debate with Raphael Warnock.
October 15, 2022
The Walker-Warnock Debate and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
(Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

I expected Friday night’s debate between Raphael Warnock and challenger Herschel Walker to be something like how a friend of mine describes hockey: fans don’t go to the game and see a fight, they go to the fight and see a game. And a debate’s expected entertainment factor increases exponentially when there’s a candidate whose competency for office is in question—there’s nothing quite like watching someone make an ass of themselves on national television. It brought to mind the anticipation of the 2008 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, who, like Walker, relied on a folksy ignorance to appeal to voters. Walker himself suggested last month this would be the case, saying Warnock “is going to show up and embarrass me at the debate October 14th.” He leaned into this, declaring “I’m a country boy. I’m not that smart… I’m just waiting to show up and I will do my best.”

Well, Walker showed up, and he didn’t do half bad. In fact, it would not be a stretch at all to say that he won* the debate.

That asterisk is intentional. Most of us arrive to a debate with either a sturdy partisan allegiance or already having chosen our preferred candidate; there’s little that happens at the debate that changes our minds. Walker neither demonstrated a command of policy nor a sudden fitness for office given his severe character issues and knowledge gaps. But for Georgians who haven’t yet made up their minds or who, despite all of Walker’s troubles, may be wavering on supporting him, he may have done enough Friday night to give some of them reason to take a chance on him.

During the debate, Warnock was exactly who he has always been: measured, likable, competent. He spoke in detail about specific provisions in legislation that enjoy popular support, such as lowering the cost of insulin, and often cited the stories of everyday Americans as inspiration for his public service. He noted several measures that he worked on with Republicans and recounted how he stood up to President Biden to prevent the closure of a military combat readiness training center in Savannah, where the debate was held.

Walker was true to form, too, but managed to find a charisma that’s been rather elusive for him. His primary message was that Warnock has become a pawn of D.C. He told the studio audience, which sounded to be more pro-Walker, that “[Warnock] went to Washington, but he forgot about Georgia.” He repeatedly stated that Warnock voted with Biden 96 percent of the time, blamed Biden and Warnock for high inflation rates, and even attempted to show he knew the Bible better than the reverend Warnock, citing one of the Ten Commandments (saying “do not bear false witness”) after accusing Warnock of not telling the truth and quoting Deuteronomy when the question of abortion was raised (telling Warnock the Bible says “therefore choose life…”).

Speaking of abortion, it wasn’t long before the controversy of Walker having allegedly paid for one of his children’s mother to have an abortion was raised by the moderators. Walker, who has previously said he supports a no-exceptions abortion ban, again adamantly denied the allegation, despite the evidence, and then revised his policy stance: He now says he supports Georgia’s heartbeat law, which allows exceptions for rape and incest if the victim files a police report. And when Warnock reiterated his stance that a hospital room is “too narrow” for a woman, her doctor, and the federal government to make decisions about her body, Walker shot back, “You’re forgetting someone else in that room: the baby.” Walker then said Warnock wanted taxpayers to pay for abortions, so “he’s bringing government back into the room.” The studio audience responded with applause and some laughter at the ol’ country’s boy quick wit.

Walker leaned into culture war issues, saying Warnock and Biden “want to put men in girls’ sports.” On national security, he said he would stand up to Putin, something he said Warnock wasn’t capable of doing because “he can’t even stand up to Joe Biden.” Walker didn’t take the bait on election denial and said that he believes Biden won. He spoke directly to viewers when talking about mental health and encouraged people to seek help, before claiming he’d been healed of his own mental health challenges. And he staked out a policy position on higher education that will surely be walked back in the coming days: He said that any college that raises tuition should have its federal funding stripped.

But Walker is still gonna Walker—ridiculousness made an appearance, too. When Walker hit Warnock on his support for Black Lives Matter and accused him of being anti-police, Warnock cracked back, “at least I didn’t pretend to be a police officer.” Walker immediately whipped out a five-pointed gold badge of questionable authenticity as proof that he wasn’t lying about his law enforcement affiliation. The moderator, news anchor Tina Tyus-Shaw, quickly scolded Walker for using a “prop,” which was explicitly forbidden by debate rules; she’d even warned Walker before the show not to brandish the badge.

But for the most part, Warnock took the high road in all the exchanges. He let Walker attack his character and judgment without returning the favor. He routinely avoided answering questions on touchy issues or on matters where his position may not align with the median Georgia voter (such as supporting Biden in 2024 or expanding the Supreme Court) and instead stated his set of guiding principles and priorities. His strategy of sticking to facts, policy, and civility resulted in missed opportunities to match Walker’s feistiness.

For Walker, his entire strategy boiled down to a bumper sticker slogan he hammered again and again: “He’s for Joe Biden; I’m for Georgia.”

Early voting begins in Georgia next week, and nothing that happened in the debate would suggest a drastically different election outcome than what the polls presently suggest. But no knockout blows were landed, which means the contest will go to the scorecards to determine the winner. And if nothing else, Georgia voters have shown us in the last two years that predicting what they’ll do is a fool’s errand.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.