The Memo: Debate or debacle?
A divided America agreed on one point Tuesday night — that the first presidential debate was peevish, disorderly and dispiriting.
The encounter saw President Trump decline to condemn the far-right Proud Boys group; interrupt his opponent Joe Biden’s remarks about his deceased son, Beau, to attack his other son, Hunter; and complain about moderator Chris Wallace’s interjections.
Biden, for his part, accused Trump of being “a clown” and “Putin’s puppy,” and protested about his “yapping.”
In one line that was instantly picked up on social media, an exasperated Biden exclaimed, “Will you shut up, man?”
No single remark can properly sum up a clash that was sometimes raucous to the point of being incomprehensible. It offered little by way of a compelling thread. There was almost no actual debating, in the real meaning of the word, though there was a surfeit of squabbling.
Overall, it was an encounter, just five weeks from Election Day, that seemed incongruously small and unbefitting for a nation facing a once-in-a-century pandemic, widespread economic struggles and tensions over racial injustice.
Trump set the early tone more than Biden, interrupting the Democrat from the debate’s opening moments, and repeatedly harrying him as if to put him off his stride.
In those early stages, Biden often seemed reluctant to get pulled into the kind of fight Trump wanted to have. He often laughed at Trump’s remarks rather than offering any immediate rejoinder. As the night wore on, though, even that forced jollity faded.
“This man doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Biden said at one point.
For all the flurries of insults, it was hard to see any moment with the potential to force a real sea change in a race that has largely been fought as a referendum on Trump, the most polarizing president of modern times.
Trump has lagged Biden throughout the race. He needed an obvious win — or, even better from his perspective, a catastrophic Biden error — to change the trajectory of the campaign. Neither was forthcoming.
A CBS News poll immediately after the debate indicated that 48 percent of debate-watchers thought Biden won, 41 percent believed Trump was the victor and 10 percent were undecided. Those numbers closely resemble the figures seen in hypothetical match-ups of the election itself. It may be that supporters of each candidate simply thought their man won.
The same poll found a far higher number — 69 percent — saying that the debate made them feel “annoyed.”
Similar verdicts of dissatisfaction were delivered from very different parts of the political and media spectrum. The Drudge Report branded the clash a “circus” and ran another headline proclaiming “Chaos reigns in hell debate.” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow tweeted, “Perhaps we could also debate by mail.” CNN’s Dana Bash, not normally an opinionated on-air presence, called the clash “a shit show.”
A CNN poll was much worse than the CBS survey for the president, with 60 percent saying Biden won and just 28 percent going for Trump.
Trump’s comments pertaining to white supremacists — and later on election security — seemed among the most likely to have some kind of impact.
Invited to condemn white supremacists, the president argued that, in relation to disorder, “I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing.”
Asked about the Proud Boys specifically, Trump said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Those words are a long way short of repudiation.
In the debate’s closing moments, Trump was asked by Wallace whether he would commit to calling for calm among his supporters during the election and in its immediate aftermath.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” he responded, a remark that raised the specter of voter intimidation.
Trump supporters will take some comfort from the way the president appeared to push Biden onto the defensive, at times pertaining to attitudes toward law enforcement.
The president also sounded one of his campaign’s most consistent themes — that Biden would be beholden to his party’s left wing if elected. The left, Trump goaded Biden at one point, would “dominate” him.
The messy overall tone of the encounter, however, led to some quick speculation that one or other of the candidates might decline to participate in the two remaining debates scheduled.
Biden’s team swiftly shut that down, with communications director Kate Bedingfield telling reporters on a post-debate call, “We are going to the debates, guys. I don’t know how many different ways we can say it. Yes, we are going to do the debates.”
The two contenders clash again on Oct. 15 in Miami. Before then, on Oct. 7, comes the debate between Vice President Pence and Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), in Salt Lake City.
For all the hype around the first encounter, its sound and fury seem unlikely to signify very much for the election’s overall outcome.
It was, instead, just one more marker on a road toward polarized incivility.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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