Many found it nearly impossible to extract real policy insights about the candidates from the rolling scrum of interruption and personal attacks. But it wasn’t hard to pinpoint a list of norm-shattering moments: a sitting president who balked at considering the election fair, invited a white-power group to “stand back and stand by,” and ran roughshod over time limits, the moderator and his opponent’s attempts to speak.
So what did all that mean? For people who care about the wellbeing of civic society, nothing good. “It’s going to be an ugly sprint to Election Day,” wrote one. Here’s what they zeroed in on.
‘That was not a debate’
Jennifer Victor is a professor of political science at George Mason University, a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks and a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
That was not a debate. The event was nearly impossible to follow because President Trump constantly interrupted the moderator and Joe Biden. In a functional democracy, political opponents respect one another’s right to participate in the political arena. This event had none of the characteristics of a structured event designed to engage political adversaries in a substantive exchange. Trump behaved like a bully or abuser who needed to control his environment. As the underdog incumbent who is behind in the polls, he came across as caged, mad and afraid.
Trump dominated the event with his bluster and helped to generate an unwatchable 90 minutes of television. It was closer to a choreographed professional wrestling event than a professional political event. Some of his supporters will have found the event entertaining and encouraging. Pathetically, the president encouraged white supremacy by directly responding to the moderator’s question on the topic by telling “Proud Boys” to “Stand down, and stand by,” which is what a leader says to his followers, not to people he’s denouncing. Democracy is in decline in America, and that was made clear at this event.
‘Biden had trouble defining himself outside of the “anti-law-and-order” framework that Trump boxed him into’
Douglas Schoen is a political analyst, campaign consultant and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Following the first presidential debate, the biggest takeaway of the night is that there were no surprises, and nothing happened that will change any attitudes, cause either candidate to gain or lose any votes, or persuade any undecided voters one way or the other. Though the debate was contentious, and at times became personal, it lacked any real or meaningful policy-oriented discussions between the two candidates that could change voters’ minds.
Indeed, on substance, the debate was entirely predictable. President Trump was weakest on the topic of the coronavirus, while Biden was the strongest in this area. The pandemic is a clear political vulnerability for the president, and, during the debate, Trump struggled to communicate a compelling case for his handling of the crisis. Trump also flailed and veered off topic when Biden attacked the president for his failure to lead on the pandemic, at one point calling Biden stupid and questioning his college record.
However, as the conversation shifted away from the coronavirus, Trump’s performance on substance slowly improved, whereas Biden’s slowly tapered off. On the issue of the economy, which followed the coronavirus segment, Trump improved from the prior discussion, and both candidates performed about evenly. And then by the time the conversation had evolved into a discussion of race relations and law-and-order, Trump was in complete command of the discussion, and this was a clear weak point for the former vice president. Indeed, Biden had trouble defining himself outside of the “anti-law-and-order” framework that Trump boxed him into, and he struggled to respond to Trump’s attacks on violence and riots in Democratic-led cities.
‘Biden was, to whatever degree possible, the calm to Trump’s chaos’
Alex Castellanos is a Republican strategist, a founder of Purple Strategies and a political analyst for ABC News.
Apparently, I tuned into the wrong debate. I saw children debating, interrupting, calling each other names, never listening to dad. But Joe Biden acted as if he were a few years older than Donald Trump. Biden looked into the camera and spoke calmly and directly to voters. He often shook his avuncular head and smiled in response to Trump’s attacks. He gave as good as he got in exchanges with the heavyweight champ, demonstrating he also had presidential strength. He didn’t show up in his WWI uniform, and he spoke clearly, with only a few stumbles, passing the mental agility test. Biden was, to whatever degree possible, the calm to Trump’s chaos. Trump was Trump, the alpha-predator in the political jungle. No strategy, just kill and eat.
That’s what scares the handful of swing voters America still has left. If anything changed because of this debate, it won’t be to help Donald Trump. And now he will lose the post-debate Nascar race: For the next week, the media will replay Biden’s smooth laps and Trump’s car crashes. Trump needed to show calm strength, not chaotic muscle Tuesday night. He didn’t do it. We should all hire Trump’s accountants because we are closer than we were yesterday to President Biden raising our taxes.
‘Not since the Cuyahoga River caught on fire has Cleveland witnessed such a spectacular auto-da-fé’
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
Donald Trump did it again. His latest accomplishment was to smash another venerable institution on Tuesday evening. Not since the Cuyahoga River caught on fire has Cleveland witnessed such a spectacular auto-da-fé. Trump torched not only the debates but his own presidential aspirations. His defiant refusal to condemn white supremacy and to abjure violence in the aftermath of the election, not to mention his petulant sneering, played into Joe Biden’s hands. Does Trump take pride in the Proud Boys? It would seem so.
Biden shrewdly allowed Trump, a walking repository of what Shakespeare called “the insolence of office,” to fulminate to his heart’s desire. Trump indicted himself. Biden never lost his composure. Trump never had it in the first place. Biden barely attempted to address Trump other than to suggest that he golfs rather than governs. Instead, he followed the old debating principle of trying to persuade the audience, not your opponent. Game, set and match to Biden.
‘The debate made it clear that democracy is on the ballot in this election’
Jennifer Lawless is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on political ambition, campaigns and elections, and media and politics.
The first presidential debate may very well not be remembered for anything other than chaos and Donald Trump’s complete and utter disrespect for his opponent, the moderator, and the Presidential Debate Commission’s rules. In some ways, that’s understandable. Trump’s interruptions, personal insults and basic refusal to comply with the format made it difficult for viewers to focus on the substance of the candidates’ answers. But that’s a shame, because the debate made it clear that democracy is on the ballot in this election.
Nearly every topic the candidates addressed offered them an opportunity either to embrace or eschew democratic values. Joe Biden chose to embrace them. He recognized systemic inequality and racial discrimination. He articulated that health care is a basic human right. He said he’d fight for a more equitable tax code. Trump, on the other hand, refused to condemn white supremacy, doubled down on the ills of racial sensitivity training, offered no health care plan and bragged about taking advantage of a tax code that benefits the rich.
Biden and Trump also offered very different views of democratic rule. Trump refused to say that he’d trust the results of the election or that he’d encourage his supporters to stay calm while the votes were being counted. Biden’s positions? The complete opposite.
Never before has the contrast between two presidential candidates—in their own words—been so stark. That’s because until Trump’s 2016 candidacy, promoting democratic values and democratic governance wasn’t controversial. The parties didn’t agree on the way to do it, but they espoused the same general goals. Democracy itself wasn’t up for debate.
Until Tuesday night. As the debate concluded, a friend texted me, “Democracy was crying tonight. Not little tears like she stubbed her toe. But big sobs like she lost her teddy bear.” The two men vying to occupy the Oval Office have fundamentally different views about the importance of upholding the values and supporting the institutions that serve as the foundation of our democratic government. And if nothing else, at least the debate made that painstakingly clear to the American people.
‘It’s going to be an ugly sprint to Election Day’
Michael Starr Hopkins is a Democratic strategist who has served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Delaney.
If aliens came down to take over the world and watched the president’s performance Tuesday night, they would deem us not worthy of their efforts. Vice President Joe Biden attempted to make his case to be the next president of the United States, but he was constantly interrupted. In spite of that, Biden looked like a steady hand: He showed the type of energy and vigor needed to tolerate the constant interruptions and attacks, while also managing to push back against the president’s lies. Biden’s response on the issue of Covid will play well with Americans scared of what the future holds.
Conversely, the president spoke directly to his base and failed to show any empathy or leadership. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you can’t be proud of the president’s performance. Trump acted like a child flailing in the deep end of the pool. No one won the first presidential debate. It just confirmed what we all already knew: It’s going to be an ugly sprint to Election Day.
‘It’s chaos. It’s anger. It’s not following the rules’
Sophia A. Nelson is an American author, political strategist, opinion writer and former House Republican Committee counsel.
The most profound line of the night for me was when Vice President Biden was talking about the staggering U.S. death toll due to Covid-19 and he looked Trump in the face and said, “It is what it is. Because you are who you are.”
That line summed up the entire debate—and the state of our nation under Donald Trump’s leadership. It’s chaos. It’s anger. It’s not following the rules. It’s violence. It’s bullying. It’s disrespect.
The debate was like nothing we have ever seen. It was an embarrassment to our citizens, and to our once glorious republic in the eyes of the world. Joe Biden won the debate because he conducted himself like a civilized statesman. Donald Trump was bad even for Donald Trump. Chris Wallace lost the debate as moderator because he lost control of the debate.
The question for all of us now is: Will there actually be other debates after Tuesday night’s awful, awful horror show?
‘The unrehearsed quips and exhalations that punctuated this “debate” revealed more about each man than any scripted line or practiced zinger’
Margaret Hoover is a conservative commentator, political strategist and author, and the host of Firing Line on PBS.
You might have missed the most important thing in the debate. It wasn’t the attacks or the insults, it was the asides, the telling statements uttered almost underneath the candidates’ breaths.
For example, when moderator Chris Wallace said: “Mr. President, your campaign agreed both sides get two minutes, answers uninterrupted. Your side agreed. Observe what your campaign agreed to.” Biden uttered, “He never keeps his word.” Boom.
This aside illustrated Biden’s central argument about Trump—and was the most effective way of making the point. While Biden had several rehearsed lines about the many lies of Donald Trump, this resonated, because in a moment of exasperation, the audience could see that if President Trump couldn’t play by the rules he had agreed to, how on earth can he be expected to keep his word to the American people? Biden’s aside highlighted what was clear from the exchange: The president is untrustworthy.
By contrast, President Trump’s asides were interruptions of the moderator and his opponent’s answers, intended to egg Biden on, ribbing him, trying to throw him off balance. But the president’s most revealing aside occurred when he was pressed to renounce white supremacists and instead first uttered, “Proud boys, stand back and standby” before confusingly counter-attacking the anarchist group antifa. Here again President Trump finds himself hard pressed to condemn Proud Boys, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as a hate group know for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric known to have appeared in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally. The failure of the president to renounce a hate group when offered up the chance in front of the American people, and instead telling them to “stand by,” illustrates how Trump is fostering unrest.
The unrehearsed quips and exhalations that punctuated this “debate” revealed more about each man than any scripted line or practiced zinger. They reveal contrasting portraits of Biden’s frustration of taking seriously the opportunity to debate ideas compared to Trump’s anger ridden sparring contest, annoyed at having to subject himself to the demeaning process of democracy.
‘Maybe Trump killed the tradition of presidential debates’
Bob Shrum is a former political strategist and the director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California.
Trump’s strategy is to turn the debates into a dumpster fire on steroids. He did nothing to win over the suburbs, college educated white women, seniors and people of color. He offered a base appeal to his base—and he can’t close the gap with that. The alienating character of his conduct was compounded by his answers and his fabrications. The white supremacist Proud Boys, he says, are supposed to “stand back and stand by” as the ballots are counted. They now appear to be using that as a slogan on their social media accounts. It was the lowest moment in the history of presidential debates.
The “Sleepy Joe” meme is over. Biden refused to be bullied, pushed back effectively, and was strong all the way through. Trump may not be toast yet, but he’s in the toaster. It’s been said that everything he touches dies, and maybe Tuesday night he killed the tradition of presidential debates. I hope not. But two more of these debates in 2020 will only debase our democracy.
‘Donald Trump made substantive discussion of anything all but impossible’
Tom Nichols is professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.
This was not a debate. It was a sustained attack on the American system of government by the President of the United States. There is nothing to comment on regarding policy; Donald Trump made substantive discussion of anything all but impossible. But Trump did make a few things clear: He takes no responsibility for the pandemic deaths that occurred on his watch, he refuses to condemn white supremacists, he wants his followers to engage in voter intimidation, and he intends to challenge any election result he doesn’t like. Any sense of decorum, any possibility that an election is a contest between Americans who want the best for the nation, went out the window as Trump railed—and lied, repeatedly—in desperation. Any reasonable viewing of this debate can only lead to two conclusions: One is that something is deeply wrong with Donald Trump, mentally and emotionally. The other is that the president will attack anyone and anything, that he will sacrifice any principle, ignore any norm, and even that he will violate any law that he thinks stands in the way of staying in office. Trump has brought a new disgrace upon his own country, and we should be horrified that our fellow citizens, our children, our allies—and especially our enemies—have now seen the United States brought low in a way few of us could have imagined possible even five years ago.
‘The moderator should have the power to cut off a candidate’s microphone’
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent. He is writing a history of the Democratic Party.
What happened Tuesday night was not a debate but a confirmation. Both Trump and Biden revealed what any American who has been paying attention to this campaign and this presidency and were honest with themselves already knew: Donald Trump is a narcissistic, insecure bully who is incapable of admitting even the slightest failure or displaying empathy ever to anyone. Joe Biden is a career politician of average intelligence who inspires hardly anyone but genuinely cares about individuals and a society in pain. Every answer—or rather every interruption and insult—just supplied more evidence of those realities.
But Trump came off worse because he could not play off an adoring crowd that would have cheered his belittling attacks. In struggling to dominate both Biden and the moderator, he looked and sounded like an aggressive boor whom few people would tolerate as a party or dinner guest.
One more thing we learned that should also be obvious: In the next two of these events, if they occur, the moderator should have the power to cut off a candidate’s microphone if he interrupts his rival. Otherwise, Americans should boycott the non-debates and read a book or find a playoff basketball or baseball game to watch instead.
‘The most significant thing that happened was when millions of Americans just tuned out’
Charles Ellison is a political strategist and talk-radio host.
Joe Biden should consider not participating in the remaining debates—seriously. This was not productive. The most significant thing that happened was probably at 9:30 PM, that moment a half-hour in when millions of Americans just tuned out and possibly changed the channel, too.
Tuesday night showed the American people that the current president has no interest in a productive and civil exchange on what his plan is for navigating the country through a crisis—should his attempt to suppress and steal the election succeed. He has no plan, and he’s not interested in one. The problem here is that I can’t really remember a thing Trump said the entire time. The president was actually talking all over himself the entire time. The most alarming points in this conversation that people will remember: 1) an American president still refusing to condemn white domestic terrorists and throwing out bizarre activation codes (“stand back, stand by” to the Proud Boys). And: 2) an American president so frightened of losing that he again suggested there would be widespread voter fraud.
There’s no both sides-ing Tuesday night. We are by no means better off now than we were four years ago. The president may be underestimating how exhausted everyone is from this. People are dying, every crisis indicator is on red alert while the nation is in a tailspin—and the president is acting like a fool.
‘It was the most undignified, unpresidential presidential debate in the history of the country’
Michelle Bernard is a political analyst, lawyer, author, and president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.
It was the most undignified, unpresidential presidential debate in the history of the country. The moderator appeared impotent in his ability to wrangle and control of Trump and, at times, Biden. Trump was like a wild beast, relentlessly charging his opponent and the moderator. In between lies, name calling and dog whistling, he told the world all we needed to know about him: He is not the president of all Americans. He is the president of those who would deny American women the right to choose. He is the president of those who would deny health care to millions of Americans. He is the president of those who equate democratic norms with socialism. He is the president of those who don’t believe in science. He is the president of those who believe that those who died in war are “losers” and “suckers.” And, he is the president of those who refuse to condemn white supremacists, who refuse to say that Black lives matter, and who believe that the killing of unarmed black women and men under the guise of “law and order” is an act of patriotism.
After Tuesday night, the American people may very well declare, “A pox on presidential debates! Give me Biden or give me Netflix.”
‘It seems pretty clear that Trump intends to drag out the election until the last possible moment’
Alan Schroeder is a professor in the school of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Schroeder is the author of several books, including Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.
This debate will not dent Joe Biden’s lead in the polls, and it will not help Donald Trump overcome his deficit. From the standpoint of substance, very little was offered—or at least very little managed to come through. Biden may not have been able to deliver a clear message amid the overall lunacy, but his performance should put to rest once and for all the stereotype of Sleepy Joe afraid to come out of his basement.
Perhaps the most vivid—not to mention menacing—exchange came at the very end, in the discussion of election integrity. It seems pretty clear that Trump intends to drag out the election until the last possible moment, to keep his reality show on the air as long as he can. If that exchange doesn’t make voters sit up and take notice, nothing will.
Trump relied on the very instincts that pushes supporters away
Atima Omara is founder and principal strategist of Omara Strategy Group. Since 2016, she has been one of Virginia’s elected representatives to the Democratic National Committee.
Trump was supposed to try to use this debate to bring back the suburban white women voters and working class white women he’s been bleeding from his support. Instead, he as usual relied on his dark instincts that pushed them away.
Trump appealed to white supremacists by refusing to denounce them, he made fun of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s struggles with addiction, and he lied about voter fraud and refused to say he would concede the election if he lost. Biden had strong moments in which he turned Trump’s attack on Hunter’s struggles with addiction to a common struggle in many American households, and he hit on the urgency of the pandemic—both its deaths and the everyday difficulties it’s created, in childcare, employment and more.
‘His outright lies … won’t work on voters who have lived through four years of his failure’
Sean McElwee is a writer, data analyst and co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress.
Much like Trump’s presidency, the debate was a total disaster. Trump couldn’t offer a plan on health care or condemn white supremacists. Biden has been leading in the polls and performing strongly with non-college whites and religious whites where Democrats have struggled because voters don’t trust Trump to handle climate, coronavirus or racial justice. Nothing that happened Tuesday night will change that, and the initial polling shows no evidence he’s gained ground. His outright lies about his record (like the idea insulin is as cheap as water) simply won’t work on voters who have lived through four years of his failure. Even the Fox News moderator couldn’t help but treat him like a child.
‘A clear contrast’
L. Joy Williams is a political commentator and president of Brooklyn NAACP.
What we watched last night was a president who is solely focused on himself rather than the needs of the American people. In every section of the debate, from healthcare to the economy to climate change, President Trump showed an utter disrespect and callousness while Vice President Biden’s empathy and authentic connection to people demonstrated a clear contrast. Trump used a national stage to throw a violent racist organization a bone telling them to “stand down and stand by” and turned a discussion about racial injustice into the need for law and order, a regular dog whistle to appeal to voters who believe people of color are inherently criminal. Biden talked directly to the 200,000 families who lost a loved one to Covid-19, the millions who are concerned they would lose health care coverage if the Affordable Care Act is repealed and the families of those who served in the military.
‘Trump behaved much the same way as Biden in 2012, but it didn’t have the same effect’
Timothy P. Carney is commentary editor at Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Eight years ago in the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden had moderate success with his strategy of interrupting and insulting Paul Ryan. It partly worked for Biden because it was a deliberate strategy and it caught Ryan off-guard.
Tuesday night, Donald Trump behaved much the same way as Biden in 2012, but I don’t think it had the same effect. For one thing, Biden was prepared for Trump’s boorishness. For another, Trump’s interruptions and irrelevant comments were not planned gibes; they were the incontinent blurtings of an angry old man.
‘It was not Biden’s best-ever debate performance, but he held his own’
John Neffinger is a speaker coach, lecturer on political communication at Georgetown University and Columbia Business School, former communications director of the Democratic National Committee and coauthor of Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be anywhere near the craziest thing the president does in the next six-plus weeks. Tuesday night he did next to nothing to make his case to the country or appeal to undecided swing voters. That’s because he’s not interested in competing in the usual democratic contest to win voters’ allegiance. He is in power and he’s trying to stay in power the way autocrats do: by leading always with rule-breaking dominance behavior, undermining institutions that could help constrain him—we can now add the Commission on Presidential Debates to that list—and creating the chaos he needs as a pretext for his “I alone can save you” authoritarian shtick. Tuesday night, on live national television, after point-blank refusing to condemn white supremacy, he told a neo-fascist group to “stand by,” adding “Someone’s gotta do something about antifa and the left.”
In light of that, the other most important thing that happened Tuesday night was at the end, when Uncle Joe looked us all in the eye and said ignore all this scary smoke and mirrors stuff and just go vote. Because if we do, we can put this all behind us. It was not Biden’s best-ever debate performance (that’s the Paul Ryan-Biden vice presidential debate in 2012), but he held his own when he had to, and the contrast could not be clearer.
‘It’s unlikely this debate changed many minds’
Alex Conant is a Republican strategist and partner at Firehouse Strategies.
Trump was in a catch 22—he needed to knock Biden off his game, but by interrupting constantly, he probably turned off the very voters he needs. It’s unlikely this debate changed many minds, which is always a de facto win for the front runner.