In the wise words of George W. Bush, “well that was some weird shit.”
The first of three debates between incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a fierce fracas that left most of the rules and portions of reality behind almost from the jump. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden exclaimed to the petulant former Celebrity Apprentice host’s incessant interruptions, and that was just in the first half-hour.
“There’s nothing smart about you Joe,” Trump replied later, in what was not exactly Lincoln vs Douglas, if you know what we mean? In fact, don’t be surprised if this first debate between Trump and Biden is the last one.
With Trump going full self-induced dumpster fire, refusing to condemn white supremacy and predicting a “fraudulent election,” Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland was a spotlight on a bitterly divided America that was a contrast in candidates.
Sadly, it was also anxiety-driven TV for the most powerful nation on Earth. Or put another way, starting with the Supreme Court and Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat of the recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this was the knife fight that some had predicted — but Trump brought a handgun that may have blown up in his face.
As Trump said himself in reference to mail-in voting, “this is not going to end well” — and it didn’t for him, even before the end. The one thing the president can be thankful for its that the coronavirus has erased any spin room tonight, because not even Kellyanne Conway could put a good face on this one for Trump.
By the time “Putin’s puppy,” as Biden called Trump, pulled out his first anticipated Hunter Biden dig near the end of the first hour and moderator Chris Wallace literally had to yell “No!” at the President of the United States like a nursery school assistant, this was all over but the shouting. Sure, Trump’s mad dog strategy often put Biden on defense, but it also was exhausting.
To put it mildly, Wallace failed to get control of the debate and spent most of it trying to tame Trump. At points Wallace even had to reassure Trump that he would like upcoming topics. “Mr. President, please stop,” Wallace said at one point. At another, he had to remind Trump that his campaign had agreed to the rules of the debate. At one point, Wallace, exasperated, said to the president, “If you want to switch seats we can do it.”
“Your campaign agreed that both sides would get two-minute answers uninterrupted,” Wallace said. “Well, your side agreed to it. Why don’t you observe what your campaign agreed to do?”
“He never keeps his word,” Biden interjected, adopting a more presidential stance than the man who actually is POTUS right now.
Wallace’s failure tonight should also be a teachable moment for Steve Scully on how to wrangle the recalcitrant and obviously desperate Trump when the C-SPAN anchor moderates the second POTUS debate October 15 in Miami. The debate will be a town hall format, but the challenge will be to keep the event on topic and not veer off into attack lines, as so often happened tonight.
In another sense, this initial debate was 180 degrees from four years ago, when a relatively carefree Trump was more interested in polishing his tainted brand than actually sit in the Oval Office. Simply put, this wasn’t the “jazz performance” of 2016, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper termed Trump’s debate stints against Hillary Clinton. This was ugly in a way that at points made Biden look all the more presidential with Trump figuratively setting up his opponent to deliver stump speech hallmarks.
Biden initially came across as flat, and at some points sunk to Trump’s level of name calling. He referred to Trump as a “racist” and “the worst president America has ever had.” “Folks, do you have any idea what this clown is doing?” Biden said.
Wisely waiting until nearly the end to unleash on Trump for his alleged remarks calling soldiers and veterans “suckers,” Biden warmed later in the 90-minute match-up from deflecting the president to cornering him with facts, stats and vexation. Biden looked directly at the camera to try to get a message through; Trump more often than not seemed to be looking at Wallace.
While certainly not the first incumbent to have a bad first debate, Trump didn’t have a bad night, he just brought his usual malcontent game to the stage.
Biden missed some opportunities to confront Trump, but the president passed up ones that could have given some Americans reassurance.
Asked by Wallace to condemn white supremacists and call on them to not add to the unrest, Trump said he was willing but did not. Referring to one far right extremist group, Trump said, “The Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” He insisted that the problems were on the left with Antifa.
Coming just 35 days before the election, this first face-to-face between the two septuagenarians didn’t have the customary handshake between the candidates because of the coronavirus pandemic, as the first of many unprecedented moves. By the end, it was clearly these two wouldn’t be shaking hands even if Trump’s predicted miracle end to the pandemic occurred tomorrow.
Things actually started out low key with Trump and Biden greeting each other with a “how ya doing man?” but didn’t stay that way for long. What came across were two candidate who despise each other, an animosity that came through even more than that between Trump and Clinton in 2016.
It took Trump just under 10 minutes to call moderate Biden a “socialist” over health care and the duo to go into what Wallace called “open discussion” and squabbling over COVID-19. If the son of the much-feared Mike Wallace thought he could control this social-distanced debate, in the words of Judas Priest, he had another thing coming.
“I’m not here to call out his lies, everybody knows he’s a liar,” Biden said of Trump, as his opponent babbled on over him. (Biden called it “yapping.”) Biden ducked and weaved as Wallace constantly had to pull a yellow card on the petulant, interrupting Trump, to no avail.
In a year that has gone off the rails from the COVID-19 crisis, subsequent economic meltdown, racial and social uprising, the death of RBG and an endless flood of Trump scandals, the expectation is this debate could top the record-breaking 84 million viewers over 13 networks.
“You picked the wrong guy on the wrong night at the wrong time,” Biden told Trump at one point. To the many viewers tuning in, the thought probably crossed their mind that this debate was not just some “weird shit,” but just plain wrong.
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