Tuesday's big debate losers: Chris Wallace...
I'm sure that the chattering class and the political spin-meisters have been powering through the wreckage that was the first presidential debate of the 2020 election season.
However, I'm reasonably certain that many of these talking heads missed the biggest loser in the debate: Fox News's Chris Wallace.
Wallace is known for his insights and his emotional stability, for his ability to interview people effectively without losing his cool, and his skill at conducting interviews without letting those interviews become out-of-control verbal sparring matches. In a world of highly partisan, biased talking heads on cable, Chris Wallace usually stands head and shoulders above the competition.
However, while Chris really blew it as debate moderator, neither Biden nor President Trump could contend that the debate was his finest hour. It wasn't, for a number of reasons.
Sure, Chris had a hard time controlling the two contentious debaters — but that should have come as no surprise. President Trump is a known quantity. You can expect him to interrupt, contradict, and mock his opponents. He's also known for answering the question he wanted to hear instead of the question actually asked of him. Chris should have been prepared either to take control of the event or just let them fight it out. The problem, though, was his bias.
Wallace's attempts to either stifle or control the president, but not Biden, made him look weak instead of in control. In a nutshell, his sad devotion to the rules, without evenhandedness, made no sense. Did he (or anybody) really expect President Trump to follow restrictive rules when his future as president is at stake?
Instead of being in control, Wallace totally failed to control the debate. His repeated pleas to Trump and Biden that they should follow the rules as established by the debate commission were as pointless as they were ineffective. Memo to Chris: Manage the debaters, not the rules.
Worse, in the process of losing that control, Chris seemed to side with Biden far more than Trump. Sure, Trump can come across as a force of nature, but Biden was — to the best of his limited ability — trying to match Trump by interrupting the president at every conceivable moment. Biden also said things that — had Trump only been quiet — would have seriously damaged his stature. Telling a sitting president to "shut up" or referring to him as a "clown" was not at all presidential, not even as Trump defines "presidential." But those moments passed uncommented upon, giving Biden a helpful boost (by not dragging him down).
I had expected Chris Wallace to strive for balance, but instead, he kept inserting himself into the debate. Several times, it seemed that Wallace himself was debating with Trump, leaving Joe Biden standing there, befuddled, ignored, and unresponsive. However, that is never the role for the moderator — if nothing else, he had evidence of this from a past debate, when Candy Crowley, by "fact-checking" candidate Mitt Romney, became a partisan debater on the side of President Obama. She was supposed to be dispassionate and in control, as was Wallace. Neither of them measured up.
On the other hand, Wallace wasn't the only person to lose the debate. One of the other big losers was President Trump himself. Instead of letting "Sleepy Joe" hang himself — something Biden seemed hell-bent on accomplishing — Trump kept self-sabotaging his debate performance by interrupting Biden.
An aside here. Back in 1969, I was one of the highest-ranked intercollegiate debaters in the country. In this role, I learned a practical lesson: when your opponent is busy shoving his foot deeply into his mouth, allow him the freedom to destroy his own campaign. In fact, instead of interrupting him, offer your opponent salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce, then stand aside and let him keep chewing.
As a result, Joe Biden didn't have the chance to make many of the kinds of noticeable gaffes he's so well known for. Worse, by interrupting Biden with talking points that were not always relevant to that moment in the debate, President Trump ensured that even when Biden did make memorable gaffes, nobody could hear him.
But wait — there's more. Biden desperately needed to deliver a strong debate performance, something that the president didn't allow him to do. More than once, Biden was easily led down the rabbit hole to try and debate Trump on what the president said instead of what he stands for. He was also tempted to embrace the dark side by name-calling the president, calling him a "liar," a "fool," a "clown," and even telling Trump to "shut up." It was a lackluster performance at a time when Biden needed to hit one out of the park.
There was, however, one more loser in this debate. And that's us, the American people. With all the grace of a cat-fight between two alley cat contenders, neither the president nor the former vice president delivered a memorable and positive debate. This debate was just about as good as Joe Biden can get, which isn't very good. If President Trump had backed only off some, Biden might have delivered an impressively disastrous debate. At least Biden could have tried, right up until the moment the president began noticing Biden's inevitable gaffes, then bringing them to America's attention. As it was, with both candidates talking over one another, neither man was listening well enough to spot a sudden vulnerability, the kind they should have been able to jump on. This is especially true with President Trump, echoing his outstanding 2016 debate performance. Based on each of their performances tonight, I was not surprised to see that one of the "uncommitted voters" who participated in Fox News' post-debate "focus group" say that after seeing both candidates in action, he didn't much like either one of them.
There will be two more presidential debates, and perhaps President Trump can learn from his mistakes. I certainly hope so.
Ned Barnett is the founder of Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas, Nevada. He's also a highly ranked intercollegiate debater, reporter and editor. He now focuses his career on helping select candidates and causes to win elections. He served as a speechwriter for two South Carolina governors, and handled media and strategy at the state level for three presidential candidates.
Image credit: NBC/The Daily Show, shareable YouTube screen shot.