First presidential debate: a Shakespearian moment

First presidential debate: a Shakespearian moment
© Getty

Although he’ll never meet the two presidential combatants who occupied center stage last night in Cleveland, William Shakespeare had it right: “all the world’s a stage.”

The difference is that this particular performance, played out before a Super Bowl-sized television audience, was not a play of fantasy but a dance with reality, revealing more clearly than ever where we are and may soon be headed.

The English drama critic Frederick Boas branded this kind of Shakespearian drama a “problem play.”


While the cameras only captured the images of two candidates and a moderator in highly visceral exchanges, the problem was that all of America played a role on stage — where the campaign moved from being a referendum on the president to a referendum on all of us now.

Arguing, disagreeing, and chiding one another over anything and everything, we’ve engaged in a no-holds-barred fight to prove we’re right and someone else is wrong. No concessions, no compromise, no common ground.

What a missed opportunity this was for all of us to glean an inkling of clarity amid times of tumult.

Coming into the brawl, both contestants had real problems to overcome.

The president had to quell concerns over a pandemic that shows no signs of surrender, and prove to the nation we are better off by challenging the unfair (China), leveling the unequal (opportunity zones), and addressing the elephant left standing in the room for far too long (immigration, citizenship, the border).


Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Rural Americans are the future of the clean energy economy — policymakers must to catch up WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year MORE had other issues: Could he explain why his own record doesn’t threaten Americans, from repeated calls for Social Security cuts, and trillions in tax increases, to his own inconsistent past regarding racism, busing, and segregation. The elephant in his room: Does he still have it together or are the majority of Americans right that he’s showing early signs of losing it.

After 90 minutes of grappling (and gaffing) theatre, we are left with more questions than answers.

China and inequality were hardly touched, and past records were barely revealed. Moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceWarner: White House should 'keep open additional sanctions' against Saudi crown prince Rick Scott acknowledges Biden 'absolutely' won fair election Bill Gates: Goal of eliminating emissions by 2030 'completely unrealistic' MORE found his agenda hijacked by the hyperbole of the moment and the force of two hyped-up combatants.

Despite the cacophony, there were at least five significant takeaways:

  • The president may have saved Biden from himself, at least for one night. By consistently objecting and interjecting, the president allowed Biden to answer longer questions in shorter spurts, meaning less time to lose his train of thought, his eye contact, and his confidence — the biggest concerns his handlers had going in.
  • Bernie must be “berning.” Afraid to embrace the progressive left in his own party, Biden made the biggest miscalculation of the night by throwing Bernie — and his “Medicare for All” crusade — under the bus by boasting how he beat Sanders “by a helluva lot.” His “Sister Soulja” moment will have certain, if not lasting, repercussions.
  • The name-calling was surprisingly one-sided. Knowing the president’s penchant for depreciating opponents with descriptors (“Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Bill,” “Crazy Bernie” to name but a few), Biden’s attempts to one-up him (“clown,” “racist,” “liar,” the “worst president we’ve ever had”) felt awkwardly flat and undignified.
  • Election integrity. A majority of Americans earlier this year said they were concerned that final vote tallies could be suspect. This campaign — and this debate — further fueled a fire that could rage after election day.
  • When navigating “law and order” becomes a shipwreck. Worried about torquing his base, Biden is still struggling to hit the right balance between affirming the right to protest while condemning the violence it breeds. When asked by the president to name one law enforcement group backing his candidacy, Biden had no answer, no comeback.

While the debate may have motivated some but unnerved many, it will be remembered as a blowout where there were no winners but one sure loser: the American people.

Democracy may be messy, but it remains the greatest show on earth.

Let’s hope both candidates show up for the final two debates ready to measure up to that standard.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media strategist and columnist. He is a partner at Ballard Partners in Washington D.C. He is also the first Edward R. Murrow Senior Fellow at Tufts University's Fletcher School. Follow him on Twitter @adamgoodman3