Presidential debates are intended to educate voters. Debates contrast with campaign rallies, speeches, and even town halls, in that the candidates are supposed to be questioned, side-by-side, to help voters decide for whom to vote. A recent editorial described the debates as the “metaphorical equivalent of a presidential job interview.”
No one would describe Tuesday’s debate as a job interview. If it were, neither candidate might have been hired. The debate was, as advertised, combat between two candidates who don’t like or respect one another. Civility never entered the building on the campus of Case Western University in Cleveland.
The debates are meant to be serious business—name-calling is supposed to be set aside in favor of facts. In theory, the candidate best proving himself as informed, competent, and having policies reflecting the will of the people would win the debate.
Tuesday night’s performance did not surprise anyone familiar with President Trump’s previous debate performances. He was aggressive in his responses to Biden, interrupting Biden’s time, and included ad hominem attacks. If you did not know that Biden spent 47 years in Washington, you did after the debate.
In practice, Presidential debates, like those in the primaries, have been less than lofty. Last night’s event in Cleveland might be characterized as an exception, but not in the right direction. Biden called Trump “a clown” and described him as “the worst President in history.”
President Trump met expectations (at least mine) by attacking Biden’s son, Hunter. He repeated allegations against him relating to both Ukraine as well as receiving $3.5 million from the wife of the mayor of Moscow.
Tapes of the debate won’t be used in high school civics class to teach students “how it is done.”
Despite the tone of the debate, it was worthwhile to watch, even though it is unlikely any votes were changed. While a lot of name-calling occurred, issues were addressed, albeit not in the manner high school debate coaches might consider optimal.
About that later.
First, the moderator. High expectations surrounded Chris Wallace of Fox News. In recent weeks he has been tough on the Trump administration. He is viewed as independent and smart. He lived up to that reputation despite the challenges inherent in a passionate exchange between two candidates who genuinely don’t like each other.
Wallace did his best to limit the mudslinging and to steer candidates back to topics he selected for the debate. He generally failed. At one point, Trump commented that he was not aware he was debating the moderator instead of Biden.
Charitably put, Wallace had trouble moderating the debate. He did a good job considering the hatred in the room.
One pleasant surprise of the evening was that Wallace teed up climate change as a debate topic. It was not on the published agenda.
Neither candidate departed from their established positions on the issue. Trump reiterated the wisdom of his repudiation of the Paris Climate accords and attacked Biden’s support for a Green New Deal.
Biden attempted to dissociate himself from the Green New Deal after Trump’s repeated references to “leftist” and “socialist” plans. He referenced “the Biden Plan” and coherently suggested that it would ultimately produce net economic gains.
It remains to be seen how this claim will play before voters.
As a Marylander, living on the Chesapeake Bay and carefully monitoring how much the river rises after recent torrential rains, I was grateful Wallace raised this issue.
A bit about President Trump. Trump performed better than I had expected, despite his being characterized as “out of control” by some commentators after the debate. He was aggressive, but not in an unexpected way. Anyone who has studied Trump over the last four years, even a little, knew what was coming.
Trump’s debate style is a constant. He views encounters as fights and comes loaded for bear. Biden faced ridicule, accusations about himself and family, and name-calling. All three appeared to be higher priorities for the President than putting forth a plan for the next four years.
That is the perspective of someone who expected the worst from Trump and hoped for a disciplined discussion of issues.
Trump did talk about policy, but it was more in the form of a look back than a look forward. If there is a Trump plan on how to respond to the pandemic or anything else, we did not learn it. Instead, we were told everything was great with the economy until the “Chinese virus” was sent our way. We were also told that he stands for “law and order,” an effort to contrast himself with Biden, who was accused of wanting to defund the police.
In contrast to Trump, Biden appeared to have effectively prepared for the debate. It showed, in good ways and bad. He responded coherently to many questions, abandoning the practice of changing his thoughts mid-sentence. But he also, at times, appeared scripted. One imagines a concise set of talking points being hammered into him during practice sessions.
Biden was at his best when he tuned out President Trump and addressed cameras directly. When he talked to families about how the pandemic impacted them, including a reference to the empty chairs of the 204,000 plus people who have died, it worked.
For many viewers Tuesday night, one crucial element of the debate was whether Biden appeared to be his full 77 years of age. Trump had teed up this issue by suggesting that Biden would need drugs to perform well. Biden triumphed here. While not necessarily performing like a 2019 Hopkins graduate, he was nothing like the often gaffe-prone candidate who participated in the Democratic party debates earlier this year. Score one for Biden.
Will everyone agree with that? His night will not go down in history as remarkable, but it served Biden’s purpose. The “he’s senile” issue that Trump has thus far unsuccessfully attempted to raise was not revived.
How about the issues?
There was little in the discussion of issues that broke new ground for anyone reading newspapers regularly. Trump defended his handling of the pandemic and the resulting economic turmoil. Biden attacked Trump’s performance.
Trump described himself as a champion of law and order; Biden described himself as a champion of racial justice and healing. He effectively fended off attacks that he supported “defunding” police. Trump refused to denounce white supremacists and even encouraged them to “stand back and stand by.”
Biden cried foul on Trump submitting Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court nominee. Trump described her has a great choice and defended his right and those of the Republican-controlled Senate to do so. Biden emphasized major policy shifts likely under a conservative majority Supreme Court and suggested the nominee was outside the mainstream.
Nothing was said on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee worth commenting on.
The discussion of the integrity of the election was a low point of the debate. The arguments of both sides are well known. Democrats want everyone to vote. Trump repeated his fears of widespread voter fraud caused by mail-in voting. When the smoke cleared about the integrity of the election, nobody was wiser. Most likely a few TVs were turned off during this segment.
Okay, who won?
Although certain Spy readers have accused this writer of looking forward to change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I am not calling a winner. When I discussed the debate with a friend who watched it independently, he suggested America had lost. He said the debate was “dark” and didn’t want to discuss it anymore.
The next presidential debate will take place on October 15 in Miami, Florida. I look forward to it.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.