No one alive has ever seen a presidential debate like Tuesday night’s unseemly shout fest between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden - 90 minutes of invective, interruptions and personal insults. It was an insult to the public as well, and a sad example of the state of American democracy five weeks before the election.
On the margins, the debate probably did more to help Biden than the president, at a moment when Trump needed to change the shape and trajectory of the campaign. But that’s not what people will remember. Even partisans locked into their choices were probably dispirited at what they were witnessing. One can only imagine what the next two debates between the two men will look like.
For decades, general-election debates have provided Americans with the opportunity to measure the candidates in an open forum, with moderators aiming to stay out of the way when possible. They have always included showmanship and sharp exchanges, but within the boundaries of what people expect of their presidents. All of that went out the window Tuesday night.
The tone of the debate was established by Trump in the opening minutes, and it never changed to the end of the evening. The president constantly ignored moderator Chris Wallace’s repeated pleas to maintain order as he took every opportunity and more to verbally hector Biden, throw his rival off balance and take up as much space as possible. This was the Trump who lives on Twitter, not someone who occupies the highest office in the land.
Biden, advised to maintain his cool, constantly looked peevish at Trump’s behavior, responding at times with well-prepared rejoinders but also with dismissive verbal broadsides. Exasperated at one point, he shot back at the president, “Will you shut up, man?” Biden cleared the low bar of expectations that the Trump campaign had inexplicably set for him but hardly delivered a shining performance.
The dreary debate fittingly ended as it began, in a moment that foreshadowed a tumultuous and divisive end to the election, as Trump pressed his argument, without evidence, that mail ballots are rife with fraud and the election therefore will be invalid.
Trump declined to say that he would ask his supporters to stay calm until a final count had been validated and instead chillingly indicated that he plans to rile up his backers to challenge and contest the counting everywhere possible. He said he would accept the outcome only if he believed the election had been fair.
Biden said he would accept the outcome and predicted that Trump would too, once the votes were counted, no matter the winner. Perhaps.
The reality TV star president knows one speed on a debate stage: to attack, to bully his opponent and to ignore the rules. For Wallace, a tough and skilled interviewer, the debate was a nightmare.
“Mr. President! Mr. President,” he exclaimed at one point as Trump refused to stay silent when Biden was answering a question. “Gentlemen!” he said at another moment as the two sparred loudly about Trump’s attack on Biden’s son Hunter.
Rare were the moments when the two nominees actually discussed their differences calmly and clearly in a debate that ranged across several topics, including the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court, the economy, racial justice and violence in American cities. More often than not, rather than engaging in exchanges that even bordered on civil, Trump and Biden talked over and past each other.
Judging the debate by traditional standards gives the evening more credit than it deserves. For most people, this was unwatchable, a grab-the-remote, change-the-channel moment in a forum that in past election years has served the country well. What two more debates like this will accomplish is hard to imagine, other than to heighten tensions in a country already on edge.
Biden came ready to make his points and at times was far more focused in doing so than was the president. In an opening question about the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he touched on the Affordable Care Act, abortion, public health and the 200,000 deaths from covid-19. He repeatedly branded Trump a liar who didn’t know what he was talking about.
Trump played a different game, one of attack and belittle. He hit Biden hard, particularly on law and order in the one moment when he seemed to have a prepared and consistent line of criticism and that his supporters were probably applauding. He tried repeatedly to hang the socialist label around his rival, and Biden, perhaps to the dismay of some on the left, ran away from any suggestion that he is captive to the liberal wing of the party.
At times, each declined to answer direct questions about his positions and policy proposals. Biden wouldn’t say whether he would support expanding the Supreme Court if he won the election and Democrats captured the Senate. Trump wouldn’t answer a direct question about whether, as the New York Times reported, he paid just $750 in federal income taxes for 2016 and 2017.
Trump needed this debate more than did Biden, given the current shape of the race. Four years ago, he came to the first debate with the polls narrowing and in a year when there was more movement and seeming volatility in his contest with Hillary Clinton.
This year there has been only modest movement in the polls, with Biden steadily leading by an average of nine points before the two national conventions, according to a Washington Post average of polls, and now leading by eight points.
Potentially more troubling for Trump has been his inability to break across a barrier that would move his support into the high 40s. He has been stuck in poll averages somewhere around 43% or 44% since the late spring, while Biden has been around 50% or above since the beginning of last summer.
Trump’s challenge Tuesday was to change the race from a referendum on his presidency into a clear choice between him and Biden. That is the goal of any incumbent president but especially for this president, who has used his office to make himself front and center in every way he can but in ways that now are hurting him politically.
Instead he chose otherwise, and it could cost him. Biden may have missed opportunities, but his only real goal was to do nothing to change the race. On that minimal goal, he succeeded. But that’s not what will be remembered about Tuesday night. Instead it will be the degree to which democracy itself has suffered and could suffer more as the election plays out to its conclusion.
This has been called the most important election in generations; some say in the life of the country. But that’s not what people who tuned in saw. Partisans will call winners and losers as they see them, and those judgments will be predictable. But collectively, this was not a night when the country could claim victory. Instead, it was quite the opposite.