If Joe Biden were looking for a pretext to skip the next two debates, he found it. It would be hard to blame him for concluding this is simply a waste of everyone’s time. We’ll see.
From the start of this debate, Donald Trump interrupted Biden. Repeatedly. For a while there, it looked like Biden was going to get destroyed—that Trump would simply run over him and Biden would be left sitting there, with that far-away look in his eyes. But Biden rallied. He embraced the shitshow format, grew stronger as the night went on, and started throwing some of his own elbows.
By the end, I was impressed with Biden’s patience. I don’t think I could have kept my cool for so long. Seriously, if Biden can sustain that kind of chaos and abuse for 90 minutes, I’m pretty sure he can handle any crisis that might pop up. If the goal of the night was to demonstrate endurance, then mission accomplished.
When Trump wasn’t interrupting him, he was going low. And the lowest blow probably came when he went after Biden’s family, talking about Hunter Biden’s cocaine addiction, and saying he was dishonorably discharged from the military (it was an administrative discharge, after failing a drug test). Not only was this scurrilous to bring up, but it was rich coming from someone who said avoiding STDs was his personal “Vietnam.”
Despite going up against Donald the insult comic, Biden managed to hold his own. He landed enough shots, I think, to demonstrate his toughness. “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar,” Biden said of Trump. “Would you shut up, man,” he continued.
At one point, Biden referred to “this CLOWN,” before continuing, “Excuse me, this... person.”
Making fun of Trump’s COVID-19 response, Biden joked about injecting bleach.
Oh yeah, Biden also called Trump a racist, and told him, “You’re the worst president America ever had.”
(Amazingly, this constituted some of the night’s more serious, elevated discourse.)
Stylistically, Biden talked to the camera, while Trump mostly looked (and shouted) at Biden. By ignoring Trump, some could say that Biden was hiding from him. On the other hand, Biden was focused on the viewer. At one point, he talked directly to viewers at home who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, saying that you can’t even trust Trump with a vaccine. “I know you don’t.”
Speaking of diminishing trust, the debate was a disaster. And some of the blame belongs to moderator Chris Wallace, who let things get out of control.
Wallace should have immediately enforced the rules and established control over the pace of the debate from the start. He should have called out Trump more for talking out of turn, and taken the heat for being the enforcer, the adult in the room. He should have nipped it in the bud. He should have, but he did not.
“Mr President, please stop,” he almost begged the president at one moment. “If you want to switch seats…” he said later, seeming to suggest that Trump was trying to play the role of questioner and debate participant. Eventually, Wallace did push back, and when he enforced it, Trump (sort of) complied. But it was far too late. The damage was done.
Why did Wallace wait so long? Moderators only have so much time and they want to hit all their topics. What is more, they don’t want to be accused of making the debate about them. The problem is, Trump realizes this, and exploits it. When Wallace pledged not to do any fact-checking, I think he invited this tactic.So I guess we can add “debate moderator” to the long list of “adults” we wrongly assumed could serve as guardrails.
Instead, Trump made a mockery of the entire debate, and we’ll see if this continues his winning streak while dragging down our institutions. I would like to think that good, decent people will be turned off by Trump’s boorish performance, but the last four years suggest that’s no sure thing.
Biden came into the night leading the race and, I expect, exited in the same position. Given that team Trump set the bar at “senile,” that may be a low bar, but he easily cleared it so I suppose he’s the “winner.”
If you like Trump, you probably think he did awesome. If you hate Trump, you really hate Trump now. If anybody changed their opinions of anybody, it was probably of the debate moderator.
Chris Wallace was the big loser tonight. Him and the American people.