The Cleveland Brawl: First Presidential Debate Was a Cage Fight
Before the first presidential debate, the consensus was that it would be a consequential event — pundits said, "This debate matters; this election matters." Others talked about it being a "big deal" and a "historic moment." Obviously, both candidates approached the debate knowing the significance of their performances. Both were ready, even raring, to go!
Trump needed to defend his record and show strength; he did that. Biden needed to show that he had the mental ability to make sense and stand up for 90 minutes; he did that. In that sense, the debate was a draw. But Trump succeeded in keeping Biden off balance; clearly, Biden got rattled and flustered. Biden has a reputation for nasty responses when he's challenged. He certainly cemented that reputation in the first debate. The most memorable lines of the night were Biden at his nastiest: "Will you shut up, man?" and "Keep yapping, man!" He also accused Trump of "ranting" and being "racist." In utter frustration and exasperation at one point, Biden exclaimed, "It's hard to get a word in with this clown." These are new lows for someone who at one point in the debate responded to Trump's taunt, "This is so unpresidential!"
This was not the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It was more like mud-wrestling!
In terms of substance, Biden echoed the old-fashioned political rhetoric full of generalities, empathetic sentiments, and talk about needing to "bring everybody together." He was well coached and able to repeat the memorized lines. Trump was a free-wheeling force of nature and was on the offense throughout the whole debate. His goal seemed to be getting Biden angry and off-script. He succeeded. He made numerous empty complaints about Trump by muttering while Trump was talking, "He doesn't know what he's talking about." He also said of Trump several times, "He doesn't know how to do that!" Another time he said Trump "never keeps his words."
Trump didn't leave his base or the undecided with a clear message or vision that was focused and sharp. Instead, he answered charges as they came up and attacked every criticism. For instance, when he was criticized for the COVID shutdowns, he responded that the shutdown "had serious impacts both on the economy and on people's health and well-being." In contrast, Biden had his points, his statistics, and his lines down pat, but he couldn't answer attacks or criticisms. In some instances, unbelievably, he didn't even try. Early on, he bluntly told the moderator, "I'm not going to answer that question." Biden made wild statements when he was flustered. He claimed, "The Democratic Party is me!" When pressed about why he didn't do something about the riots, violence, and looting, he brushed it off with "I'm not in public office."
Trump successfully forced Biden to reveal his leftist positions on several key issues. Where Biden really blew it was repeating the assertion, "Antifa is an idea, not an organization." He blamed Trump for the division in the country and for the violence in the cities. He mentioned several times that violence has gone up "under Trump." When pushed on his views about law enforcement, Biden couldn't name a single law enforcement group that supported him, nor did he even attempt to give a wholehearted endorsement of the police. Instead, he talked about the need to have "psychologists and psychiatrists" go with law enforcement to try to "calm people down." He also talked about the need to "reimagine police" and have "community policing."
Trump also pushed Biden on his far-left views, linking Biden to the Green New Deal. Trump focused his climate remarks on the need for clean water and air and commonsense environmental conservation. Trump gave a strong critique of the forestry policies that he claims lead to the annual fires that sweep so destructively through California. Trump was particularly strong in defending his executive order to end training in critical race theory. He bluntly called the training racist and said it trains people to hate America. Biden supported the training because many people are "racially insensitive" and need to be taught how to "not offend" others. Trump defended his relaxing the shutdown and pushed Biden to the point of implying that he will shut the country down again if he is elected.
Trump will catch flak for his snarky comment after condemning white supremacy. He called on the Proud Boys to "stand back," but he also said they should "stand by." He then added that something has to be done "about Antifa and the left." There will be little disagreement over that among most Americans who have seen the violence of cities burning, statues toppled, hardworking Americans' businesses destroyed and brutal attacks on police trying to maintain peace and order.
In short, the first debate was a no-holds-barred brawl. Joe Biden didn't embarrass himself and survived to debate another day. Donald Trump prevailed by the sheer force of his personality and his quick thinking. The big question is whether the debates can survive the chaos unleashed in this first one. Chris Wallace did not clearly establish the structure and definitely did not control the process. He tried repeatedly but was ineffective. There was nothing edifying about the debate, and probably few people will change their votes based on it. The future moderators face a daunting challenge.
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