Unseemly brawl unlikely to change a thing

Unseemly brawl unlikely to change a thing
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The debate between President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAzar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments House Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis On The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits MORE more resembled a professional wrestling match than a substantive presidential discussion — to the disadvantage of the incumbent, who is trailing in the race.

It wasn’t a game changer — they rarely are, but more on that later.

It was a chaotic melee, with Trump repeatedly interrupting, personally insulting, often riding roughshod over the moderator, making wild inaccurate charges, prompting Biden at one point to say, “Oh shut up.”


There were more incendiary charges, rehearsed one-line put downs and a lot of familiar views recycled by both well-known candidates.

There was lots of heat, very little light.

Often embarrassing to view, it was a model of how not to conduct a presidential debate.

From the inception, Trump falsely charged that Biden favors a socialized health care plan with no private insurance. In truth, that was a big part of the Democratic presidential primaries — with Biden opposing the “Medicare for All” proposal. The president also refused — again — to denounce white supremacists.

Overall, the unruly spectacle probably changed nothing, better for Biden, as Trump's efforts to rattle him rarely succeeded and Biden more than held his own.

Biden went into the debate with about a seven point lead nationally and ahead in most of the battleground states. If recent history of presidential elections and debates holds, it won't be much different on Nov. 3.


Although many politicians and pundits present these debates as make or break — the Super Bowl of presidential elections — the reality is most debates have little impact.

In the eight elections since Ronald Reagan, the poll numbers prior to the first debate remarkably mirror the final results. (The single debate in 1980 between Reagan and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump impeached again; now what? When government becomes destructive Gerald Ford Foundation urges 'dignified' presidential transition MORE — held shorty before the election — was the last one to make a difference: Some voters who wanted change held back until that debate.)

There have been adjustments. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama'Nationalize' Facebook and Twitter as public goods Millennials and the great reckoning on race Biden's chief aide says president wants teams, no rivals MORE seemed bored in his first 2012 debate against Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt Romney'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE — probably reflecting his feelings about these forums — but he recovered, and there is little indication the debates mattered in the end.

Curiously, both Clintons — Bill and Hillary — were judged by the press and most politicos to have outperformed their opponents — she clobbered Trump four years ago — but their support actually fell a bit in the weeks afterwards.

Most important, none of the presidential debates left much of a substantive mark or laid out new markers for governance. The most-remembered moments are insignificant personal asides: George H.W. Bush looking at his watch, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreWill Pence be able to escape the Trump stain? Vice President Pence: Honor in humility Pence rises to the occasion, to truly save America MORE sighing, Donald Trump physically invading Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMillennials and the great reckoning on race Biden chooses Amanda Gorman as youngest known inaugural poet Can Biden encompass the opposition he embodied? MORE's space in 2016.

The more telling forums might be if candidates questioned each other, as sometimes has happened in state and local exchanges. Last night wasn’t that.

The substance-less debate was crystallized by Trump's repeated claim that COVID-19 is all China's fault, none of it his own responsibility. It’s belied by facts, the experts and his own words.

China covered up the virus breaking out in Wuhan last December and failed to report it promptly and fully to the World Health Organization; this indisputably was a major factor in the deadly global spread.

But Trump claims he moved quickly with a late January ban on travel from China; in fact, it was so limited that 40,000 travelers from China arrived in the U.S. over the next month or so.

The President lavished public praise on the Chinese and told author Bob Woodward on Feb. 7 that while this was a really deadly virus, it would go away in a couple months and that his friend, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, had it under control.

He didn't use the charge “Chinese virus” until March 16, after the surge had begun in the U.S.

Leading epidemiologists like Marc Lipsitch, of the Harvard School of public health, believes China's inexcusable lack of transparency can't be an excuse for Trump's failure to take action and level with the public about the danger.

The U.S. has the highest number of deaths in the world, far worse than any other major country: five times the death rate of Germany, which was equally exposed to China's failures.

Biden exaggerated a few times and returned Trump's insults calling him a “liar,” a “clown,” and “the worst president” ever. Biden — and moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceMulvaney: Earlier Trump controversies were 'policy differences' or 'stylistic,' but 'Wednesday was existential' Clyburn: House has responsibility to impeach Trump over Georgia call Fox's Chris Wallace: Pence 'chose the Constitution' over helping Trump MORE — let the president off the hook on the New York Times story that Trump paid no taxes for ten years — only $750 in federal income taxes — and is over $400 million debt, raising questions to whom he's indebted. Trump didn't have to answer any of that.

The former Vice President scored some points during the unruly 95 minutes, particularly on supporting the popular Affordable Care Act, which Trump is trying to kill, and on Russia, calling Trump “Putin's puppet.”

Trump, however, persisted in false charges, charging that Biden is for defunding the police. He’s not — and said so repeatedly.

The rowdy, raucous brawl ought to make us all question the value of subsequent debates. There will be two more — and a Vice Presidential debate next week, which — without Trump — will be less uncivil.

But if history is any guide, that debate will be even less consequential.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.