Tuesday’s first presidential debate was a lot like America these days: Two people talking over each other, nobody able to moderate them, and little of substance to be gained at the end of the night. Here are three main takeaways:
A disaster for democracy: President Trump is behind in the polls and had to do something bold, something game-changing to swing momentum his way.
So he tried to kill presidential debates.
The first 20 minutes were unlistenable — the word “debate” applies only because it was billed as such. Trump constantly talked over former Vice President Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, on the rare occasions when the Fox News journalist tried to get the president to be quiet and let his Democratic challenger speak.
For much of the first half of the 94-minute event at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, it was impossible to hear what anyone was saying, because everyone was talking at once. Almost always, it was the president doing the interrupting.
Nathan Gonzales, publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections, tweeted that “it felt like the president was live-tweeting a Biden speech, except doing it from a podium with a microphone.”
Biden ignored him at first. Then he tried talking to the TV audience. But Trump kept trying to throw him off his game. Biden tried to dismiss it with a smile. No luck. Then Biden said something never before heard at a debate between two candidates vying to be leader of the free world:
“Will you shut up, man?”
Wallace, the rare network journalist who wins bipartisan praise, lost control right away. He couldn’t stifle Trump, nor did he possess the ability to turn off his microphone. At one point, he outshouted both candidates to get them to refocus on the next question.
Before the first hour was over, nationally regarded University of Virginia politics Professor Larry Sabato tweeted: “CANCEL THE REMAINING PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES. It is impossible to have an orderly, productive exchange with Donald Trump. Stop pretending otherwise.”
So what was the point of Trump’s strategy?
Longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who watched the debate with a focus group of undecided voters, tweeted that “the consensus is that Trump dominated … and turned off undecided voters in the process. … This debate has actually convinced some undecided voters to not vote at all. I’ve never seen a debate cause this reaction.”
Trump declines to condemn white supremacy, again: Race became a central issue, with the backdrop of a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Americans of color and a national reckoning on racism spurred by police killings of Black people.
Wallace asked Trump point blank to condemn white supremacists and armed militias that have sought to police racial justice protests and tell them to stand down.
He didn’t. Instead, after Biden named a far-right group called the Proud Boys, whose members have confronted racial justice protesters in some cities, Trump said they should “stand back, stand by.”
The exchange followed tense back-and-forths about which candidate would better handle issues of racism.
Biden pointed to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when Trump suggested there were “fine people” among not only antiracism protesters, but also the neo-Nazis they confronted. He said Trump has only inflamed divisions since.
“This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racial hatred, racist division,” Biden said. “This man, is the savior of African Americans? This man cares at all? This man’s done virtually nothing. … He just pours gasoline on the fire constantly.”
Trump attacked Biden for not explicitly condemning antifa protesters whom the president blames for violence in some cities, though Biden did condemn violent protests in general. So Wallace asked Trump if he would condemn white supremacists.
“I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing,” Trump said. Pressed by Wallace, he added: “I’m willing to do anything.”
“Then do it, sir,” Wallace said.
After saying the Proud Boys should “stand back, stand by,” Trump concluded, “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.”
No play to the middle: The Trump America saw Tuesday night — aggressive and confident, loud and unapologetic — likely delighted his base, the people who voted him in four years ago because they wanted to see someone who would challenge the Washington insiders they believed had ignored them for decades.
“I’ve done more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years,” he told Biden.
It was everyone except his base who was left out of the Trump messaging.
Even though he’s down by six percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, this was no pitch to the shrinking number of undecided voters Trump needs to pull to his side. Instead, his debate strategy was one of constant attack on Biden and an angry, animated recital of the greatest hits from his campaign rallies.
When Biden said Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic had resulted in 200,000 American deaths, the president claimed without explanation that “if we had listened to you, it would have been 2 million.”
Biden’s support of the Green New Deal would cost the country $100 trillion, Trump said, ignoring that Biden does not support the environmental wish list.
He ridiculed Biden’s stance on the violence that has erupted in “Democrat-controlled” cities, saying Biden “can’t even say the words ‘law enforcement’ because you would lose your radical left support,” with no apparent attempt to win over voters who believe too many police departments abuse Black communities.
Trump even challenged Biden’s intellectual ability, saying he “finished last in your class,” and accused Biden’s son Hunter of being dishonorably discharged from the Navy and accepting millions from Russian and Chinese interests, which Biden angrily denied.
While Trump reluctantly said human-caused pollution might play a role in climate change, he went back to his long-running attack on California for not properly managing its forests. He said the regular calls he gets saying “California is burning, California is burning,” would go away if the state cleared dead trees and dry tinder, not mentioning that more than half the state’s forest land is managed by the federal government.
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