The first presidential debate in Cleveland was a disaster, to put it bluntly. After 90 minutes of crosstalk, petty jabs, and ‘c’mon man’s it’s hard to believe many undecided voters will come out of the night with a clear candidate in mind. Most will be begging for presidential politics to stop rather than racing to the polls. In fact, judging from social media, many undecided voters are already saying this debate convinced them not to vote at all.
President Trump’s performance was perhaps his worst in a major debate so far because he squandered numerous opportunities to let Biden hang himself with his own words. Rather than let viewers see Biden avoid the question after being asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he would pack the court or explain why he called the post-COVID travel ban from China xenophobic, Trump repeatedly interrupted, thus saving Biden in some of his most vulnerable moments.
Trump’s best moments in the 2016 debates were when he allowed Clinton to speak freely and then nailed her with a quick one-liner or otherwise sassy response. Here, he came off as over-aggressive. It could have been a strategy by Trump to come out of the gate hard in order to fluster and tire out Biden early, but the tactic went on way too long to be effective.
Biden initially fell into Trump’s trap, telling the President to ‘shut up, man’ and ‘quit yapping’, — comebacks that are more fit for a shuffleboard game at the nursing home than a 2020 debate stage. He regained some composure later on, but had clearly lost some of his mojo as his stutter returned and he had several long pauses. He even once referred to a ‘9/11 call’ as opposed to a 911 call.
Biden also struggled when pressed about his son Hunter’s corruption in Ukraine, Russia, and China, even lying at one point about whether or not he had received $3.5 million from the wife of the former mayor of Moscow. He could not give a coherent response on the lockdowns; at one point, he blamed Trump for destroying the economy by shutting it down, but later went after the President for wanting to reopen the country. It was confusing for pundits, let alone casual observers. Biden did come off as low energy against the brash Trump — reporters who were in the room said Trump’s voice boomed through the auditorium while Biden was much quieter. But there were only a few people in that large room.
Americans should be equally disappointed with the moderator. Wallace saved Biden multiple times as he wavered under Trump’s interrogation, insisting that they were out of time and had to move to the next topic. It seemed like a convenient excuse considering the debate was so generally unorganized — what’s another 30 seconds to allow Biden to answer?
Wallace kept interrupting Trump, but didn’t with Biden. The worst moment was toward the end of the debate when Biden declared that he could not follow Trump’s responses, to which Wallace laughed and agreed. That kind of camaraderie with a candidate during a debate from a supposedly unbiased moderator is completely inappropriate. Trump appeared to be forced to debate both Biden and the moderator. It is not the sole reason Trump performed poorly, but it does matter.
The good news for Biden is that he campaigned as the return-to-normalcy candidate. Trump by contrast became his own worst enemy — he kept derailing the conversation. Anyone who was depressed by the general wackiness of the debate may find Biden more appealing now. The good news for Trump is that he projected a sense of strength and that he usually improves with each debate.
I finished the night with a pounding headache. It’s unclear if that was due to the residual effects of being hit by a car a couple of weeks ago or the insanity of the debate, but I’m assuming the latter. After watching the event in DC among around 30 conservative friends, there was near universal agreement that America lost.