Hotheads In Cleveland: I always dread having to talk about who “won” a presidential debate because that concept is meaningless. These things aren’t even debates in any classical sense, and both sides will always argue that their “candidate” won. Last night was particularly frustrating to call a winner on because, frankly, it was difficult even to listen to. With both candidates and the moderator constantly yelling over one another, the only real winner was the maker of Excedrin. I know you don't want to bring a knife to a gunfight, but both of these guys brought bazookas.
If you’re a masochist, here’s the entire debate on YouTube.
Here are five “highlights”…
As for which candidate helped himself the most (and this is totally divorced from issues like honesty, accuracy for vision for America, which barely came up), I hate to say it, but it’s probably Biden, by a hair. Both candidates have already nailed down their bases. Trump voters will vote for Trump, and Democrats would vote for a lampshade as long it wasn’t Trump. This debate needed to sway whoever those unicorns are who remain undecided.
For that, Biden had the lowest bar to clear (proving he could be awake and lucid for 90 minutes in the P.M. hours), and he cleared it, although he got wobbly at times. Trump needed to strike a more controlled “presidential” tone and prove he wasn’t the Twitter bully he’s depicted as, but his combativeness only played into that image.
I know him personally, I’ve campaigned with him, and I’ve interviewed him multiple times. I know that he's very intelligent and he can be charming, thoughtful, gracious and diplomatic. That was the Trump I wish had been at the debate last night. Unfortunately, he brought his WWE persona (perhaps that’s why Chris Wallace was as effective as a WWE referee.) Maybe he intended to throw Biden off-kilter (which did happen at several points), but overall, I think it hurt more than helped.
All the constant loud crosstalk also caused him to miss several big opportunities and distracted from the moments where he did score on Biden. It would’ve been more effective just to let Joe talk and then correct his multiple whoppers clearly. One commentator said Biden came across as old and weak, and Trump seemed to be heckling him. It wasn’t a good image for either of them.
In fact, the worst damage Biden suffered came not from attacks by Trump but things he said (or questions he dodged) himself, and all the hubbub made it easy to miss those. But I’m sure they’ll be excerpted for commercials. I also hope nobody was playing a drinking game every time Biden said the word “plan,” or you’re probably in the morgue now.
Trump inexplicably missed his chance to correct some of Biden’s repetition of blatant lies about him (like the “very fine people” among the white nationalists fake news) and should have focused more on how his economy really is better for all Americans than the Obama/Biden era. It was good that he mentioned they had the slowest recovery since the Depression, but it would’ve been nice to mention that he presided over the first rising wages in many years. He also missed an opening by not laying into Biden’s claim that he would repeal the Trump tax cut (which Dems always claim was “for the rich,” as they do for every tax cut, but repealing it would actually put a big tax hike on the middle class) and raise the capital gains tax by 7 points, both of which would slam the economy. And his vow to create thousands of good-paying “green jobs” by spending trillions of tax dollars should’ve given everyone a chilling sense of déjà vu.
Trump also should’ve been stronger in denouncing rightwing extremists. His comment about the Proud Boys is already giving the media their anti-Trump talking point. It’s ridiculous that he should constantly be asked to do this, but he could’ve pointed out that he’s already done it repeatedly, including when he “totally condemned” the ones in Charlottesville in the fake quote Biden keeps repeating. He could have asked how many times he has to condemn rightwing radicals before Biden finally condemns violent leftist radicals like Antifa who actually are destroying our cities.
Speaking of that, one of Biden’s worst moments came when he claimed that Antifa is not an organization, it’s “an idea.” So good news, Americans: your cities aren’t being burned, your businesses looted and your cops killed by an organized group of far-left radicals. That’s just being done by an amorphous concept!
Biden also might have hurt himself with the far left in his base by distancing himself from the Green New Deal (which he denied his “plan” was, then immediately called it that) and the pact with Bernie. When he was asked why, if he is the Democratic Party as he claimed, he didn’t call blue state mayors and governors and tell them to call up the National Guard and stop the rioting, his excuse that he’s just an out-of-office private citizen was astonishingly weak.
And his silence spoke volumes, both when pressed on whether he would pack the SCOTUS and to name one police organization that has endorsed him. Biden also didn’t come across as having a particularly presidential temperament. He allowed himself to get angry and lash out, calling Trump a “liar,” “racist” and “clown,” and telling him to “shut up,” which doesn’t show much respect for the office. And his claim that the allegations of shady financial deals by his son Hunter have been “debunked” was laughable. “Debunked” is another term I don’t think Democrats understand. They keep applying it to topics they don’t want to talk about without first going through the pesky step of actually debunking them.
Of course, nobody came out of this one unscathed. Chris Wallace is also taking heat from both sides for allowing it to become an uncontrolled shoutfest, although it’s not clear how he could’ve stopped it.
One Trump-supporting pundit who has more fortitude than I do watched it again and claims to have counted over 35 interruptions of Trump by Wallace but none of Biden.
In a way, it’s a sad reflection of where America is in 2020. Not even the two Presidential candidates can talk for 90 minutes without yelling and calling each other names. I think Ari Fleisher got it right when he said, “We’re not electing gladiators and this shouldn’t be a food fight. I think this was a train wreck tonight. Both candidates – too much interruption, too much back-and-forth. And that’s just not good for the country...I just think when you come to a debate you should air the differences, occasionally interrupt, get the extra point in, poke your opponent, but this was way over the top tonight, by both candidates.”
If there is another debate (and Dems are already pushing for Biden to refuse to do any more), let’s hope it’s a Zoom conference. With a mute button.