Pity the poor closed-caption writers. Pity the poor ASL interpreters. But most of all, pity poor us, the American electorate.
Tonight was the first presidential debate of the 2020 election, and if there is any sense or mercy left in this nation, it will be the last too. The event was a shambolic shout fest, with scarcely a single morsel of substance to be found. President Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, lied repeatedly, refused to condemn racist groups even after explicitly offering to do so, and sought to undermine trust in the election. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat, meandered through his positions, only occasionally finishing a sentence. Moderator Chris Wallace lost control within minutes and never regained it.
Voters who tuned in hoping to learn something new about either man’s plans for the country, or about his character, must have realized early on that they were in the wrong place. The three septuagenarians onstage were speaking over one another within minutes. Trump interrupted Biden; Biden interrupted Trump; Wallace tried to interrupt both, with limited efficacy, especially against Trump, with whom he at one point offered to switch seats.
The president entered the debate most in need of a big night, given that he consistently trails in polls. There is no doubt that he dominated the stage, as was clearly his plan coming in. Whether that actually benefits him is another question. His most effective moment of the night came in a broadside against Biden on the issue of “law and order.” But several months of hard experience show that Americans are appalled by Trump’s handling of racial justice and protests. The president keeps coming back to the issue, hoping it will break through. Perhaps this is the night it will—but don’t place money on it.
A more shocking moment came later in the debate.
“Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of the cities, as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?” Wallace asked Trump. Yes, the president said:
Donald Trump: Give me a name, give me a name.
Chris Wallace: White supremacists and white nationalists. White supremacists.
Biden: White supremacists, the Proud Boys.
Trump: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what. Somebody has to do something about antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing, this is a left-wing problem.
On one hand, it was astonishing: All Trump had to do was condemn the Proud Boys, and he had said he’d condemn a group if given a name. On the other hand, it’s no surprise that Trump was unwilling to reject the appeal to racism that has powered his career for decades. There was nothing new here—just a vivid illustration of who Trump has always been.
As I have written, Trump is often incoherent, but he speaks vigorously, which gives him an aura of strength. Biden was for the most part neither vigorous nor coherent. Although the Biden of the Democratic National Convention was cool and collected, tonight saw the return of the Biden who stumbled his way through debates in the Democratic primaries. Answers took left turns, then right turns, then U-turns, feinting in several directions and ending nowhere.
The Democrat produced his two best answers on COVID-19 and on racial equality, offering a contrast with Trump and presenting his own plan. These are two issues that work most to his advantage. But elsewhere, he allowed Trump (and Wallace) to interrupt his train of thought, or did so himself. He refused to answer a direct question on whether he supported ending the filibuster, and he offered a surprisingly timid response to a question about law enforcement and to attacks by Trump on his son Hunter Biden, both of which he had to have known were coming. Perhaps the most telling fact of the evening is that Biden’s most memorable moments were one-line insults—“Would you shut up, man?” “Keep yappin’, man.” “It’s hard to get a word in with this clown.”—and not tied to his policies or positions.
The worst loser of the night, however, may have been Wallace. He entered the night lauded as perhaps the most fearsome interviewer on national television and left as roadkill, having shown himself completely unable to control the candidates. But if even the stentorian Wallace was unable to maintain a little order, the other scheduled moderators, Steve Scully and Kristen Welker, are unlikely to fare better.
Presidential debates rarely make much difference in the race. Even the most infamous debate gaffe of them all, Gerald Ford’s 1976 insistence that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” had no real effect on the election. This is likely to be especially true this year, when the polls have remained surprisingly stable. Beyond that, tens of thousands of voters have already cast their ballot, and more are returned each day.
There may be some voters who were surprised to see that Trump is a blathering bully, or who were leaning toward Biden but were shaken by his lackadaisical performance. But any undecided voter who turned this debate on hoping to learn something productive must surely have been reaching for the remote control (and maybe a stiff drink) soon thereafter.
Although the primary debates are run by news outlets in coordination with the major political parties, the general-election debates are hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan, independent body. The group aims to support a lofty ideal: “The CPD’s primary mission is to ensure, for the benefit of the American electorate, that general election debates are held every four years between and among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States … The CPD was formed to ensure that the voting public has the opportunity to see the leading candidates debate during the general election campaign.”
If the CPD really wishes to benefit the American electorate, it should cancel the rest of the debate season.