An ugly debate
No clear winner emerges as Donald Trump and Joe Biden tussle
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Some news networks billed Tuesday night’s presidential debate as “the main event,” but it was more slugfest than thriller in Cleveland: President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden exchanged derision and disdain over 90 minutes filled with interruptions and insults as an exasperated moderator pleaded for order.
The candidates faced off for the first time after six months of the most untraditional presidential campaign in modern history. Trump entered the night as the presumable underdog, with a string of recent polls reporting he trailed Biden.
The question: Could Trump change that dynamic or persuade the sliver of voters who say they’re still undecided?
Biden went into the evening as the presumable front-runner, but also as the candidate with a different question mark: After a series of verbal gaffes and questions about his mental acuity, would Biden seem fit and ready to take on the job of the presidency?
Perhaps the most important question for both candidates: What would they have to say about policy?
Chris Wallace of Fox News moderated the debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Though Fox is known as a conservative network, Wallace is known for holding Trump’s feet to the fire, and he battled to live up to that reputation over a contentious hour-and-a-half.
The campaigns agreed to the terms in advance. The evening would consist of six 15-minute segments focusing on a single topic in each segment: the pandemic, the economy, the Supreme Court, the candidates’ records, election integrity, and race and violence in American cities. Each candidate would speak for two minutes, then the rest of the segment would be devoted to “open discussion.”
The plan devolved quickly.
The candidates constantly spoke over each other, with Wallace pleading with them to stop. At times, he sounded like a father ready to turn the car around and go home if the kids wouldn’t behave.
Trump often seemed to have the hardest time not interrupting his opponent: Wallace ended up telling him the country would be better served if they could hear from both candidates without interruptions.
The interruptions continued, and so did the insults: Trump said there was nothing “smart” about Biden. Biden called Trump a “fool.” Trump said Biden had accomplished less in 47 years of public life than Trump had accomplished in almost 47 months. Biden said Trump was the worst president the country ever had. The dynamic seemed to reflect the division and rancor in the nation, instead of modeling how to disagree in ways that are respectful and productive.
What about policy?
The debate often turned more on personality than policy, and it was hit-or-miss when it came to nitty gritty details about what the candidates would actually do.
A couple of notable moments: On the Supreme Court, Biden offered a glimpse of his strategy when it comes to Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Biden said he believed the nomination should be filled by whoever wins the election in November. But Biden didn’t go after Barrett personally.
He instead emphasized how the court might handle the Affordable Care Act in the coming weeks. (The court is set to hear arguments regarding the law’s legality the week after the election.) With healthcare, Biden narrowed in on an issue he likely thinks is in the forefront of many voters’ minds at the moment.
He did go on to mention Roe v. Wade and noted the president’s opposition to the abortion ruling. Biden said that would be an issue too, but it wasn’t his first line of offense.
When it came to some Democrats’ suggestion to expand the Supreme Court if Trump goes forward with Barrett’s confirmation against their wishes, Biden dodged the question.
When Wallace directly asked him whether he would expand the court and support ending the Senate filibuster, Biden replied: “Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue.”
In the past, Biden has said he opposed both moves, but he now seems to leave the door open.
Trump responded by seeking to tie Biden to the far left of his party. Many have already raised questions about how far left Biden would be willing to go, since he’s already moved further left on some policies since his campaign began. Biden’s response: “I am the Democratic Party right now.”
It was a curious response likely intended to assure voters they shouldn’t worry about others in the party who have pushed further left. But it may be a hard argument to make with a running mate who ran to Biden’s left for much of her own presidential bid.
The moderator also asked the candidates about race and violence in America, and Wallace pressed Biden on whether he had called on the mayors of roiling cities in Oregon to allow the National Guard help quell ongoing riots.
Biden replied: “I don’t hold public office now. I am a former vice president. I’ve made it clear. I’ve made it clear in my public statements that the violence should be prosecuted. It should be prosecuted. And anyone who commits it should be prosecuted.”
Wallace pressed: “But … you’ve never called for the leaders in Portland and in Oregon to call in, bring in the National Guard and knock off a hundred days of riots?”
Biden responded: “They can in fact take care of it if [Trump] just stays out of the way.”
This seemed like a notably weak spot for Biden. If voters are concerned about how he would handle rioting and unrest in American cities, they may have gone away without an answer.
President Trump was insistent about the need for law and order, but he faced his own moment of dodging an important question when Wallace asked him whether he would condemn white supremacy. Wallace noted Trump has criticized Biden for not calling out antifa and other left-wing groups: “But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups?”
Trump fumbled: “Sure, I’m willing to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. … I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
Wallace replied: “Well then, do it, sir.”
Trump replied: “What do you want to call them? Give me a name. … Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. 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 direct, this is a left-wing problem.”
Even if the president wanted to emphasize leftist groups are more responsible for the riots going on in American cities, it would have been simple and wise to say: Yes, I condemn white supremacy.
After a discussion on climate change, Wallace ended the debate by asking the candidates if they would pledge not to declare victory until after the election is independently verified.
Trump expressed his concerns over mail-in voting, and he emphasized how overwhelmed states’ voting systems might become when they receive an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots over the next few weeks.
That’s a valid concern, and it could mean we end up waiting a few days or even weeks to learn the outcome of the election, if it comes down to a close count in a swing state. Trump also talked about reports of mishandled ballots and his concerns about fraud in the system.
He left open the question of when he would be satisfied the results of the election were accurate after Nov. 3.
On a night without a scorecard, it seemed clear there wasn’t a winner. The battle was too uncivil to think of one candidate as triumphing. But Biden did show he could keep up with Trump and make the points he wanted to make. Trump showed he was digging in and reaching out to his base.
Whether or not either candidate won over voters during the contest, they do get two more chances: The pair will face off in two more presidential debates coming up in October.
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