5 October 2020

The Worst Presidential Debate in American History?

Former vice president Joe Biden debated President Trump for the first time on September 29th in Cleveland, Ohio, a date circled for months as one of the most consequential on the 2020 political calendar, and one of a dwindling number of chances for Mr. Trump to chip into Mr. Biden’s lead in the polls.

With the diminished campaign activity due to COVID, there has been greater interest in this first opportunity of a side-by-side comparison of both candidates, in style as well as in substance, each campaign promising a stark contrast in policy, personality and preparation.
For some, the debates indeed represent a rare opportunity for 250 million US voters to compare the candidates’ policies and personalities on prime-time television. Yet, for many, this debate appeared as another low point for American democracy.

The race between Biden and Trump has been generally consistent for months. Biden has maintained a comfortable lead in most national polls and has an advantage, though narrower, in many of the battleground states that will decide the election, a reality that gave the president an urgent incentive to change the direction of the contest and the structure of the race on national television. Trump faced with this debate a well-documented history of incumbent presidents underperforming during the first debate of their re-election cycle. Confronting rivals with fresher debating experience from hard-fought primary campaigns, presidents have sometimes strained to balance a presidential demeanour while also landing attacks.

In Mr. Trump, Biden faced an asymmetrical antagonist, someone who has no qualms about deploying crudity, insults, distortions and falsehoods for political advantage, and the absence of guardrails seemed more evident than ever on that special night in Ohio. Mr. Biden had settled on a favourite pre-debate phrase about the race, calling it a contest between his hometown, Scranton, and Park Avenue, part of his effort to connect with working Americans, especially in the Industrial Midwest.

Though it was largely marred by an unprecedented level of chaos, the 90-minute debate, moderated by broadcast veteran and Fox News host Chris Wallace, focused on six segments: the pandemic, the economy, the Supreme Court, the “integrity of the election,” the “Trump and Biden records” and “race and violence in American cities.”

Five takeaways

Here are 5 takeaways from the 2020 presidential election first debate:

Trump was unrestrained, even by Trumpian standards. The president did not do extensive debate prep ahead of Tuesday, but he did come prepared with a plan he deployed early and often: interrupting Biden to attack him, his family, and his record in the Senate and the White House. It was a vintage Trump performance — which doubtless thrilled his supporters but did little to broaden his backing beyond his base.

Trump couldn’t hide from the coronavirus pandemic. Despite Biden’s attempts to inject it back into the discussion, the debate devolved into arguments and bickering that ultimately did not center on the global pandemic. Trump, thought, repeatedly accused China of spreading its “plague” throughout the world.

On environment, Trump said he believed greenhouse gas emissions “to an extent” were responsible for climate change, but were just one of several factors, while Biden did his best to distance himself from the left. He repeatedly denounced the Green New Deal and referred instead to his own climate plan, which includes less aggressive emission-reduction targets.

Biden didn’t melt under pressure. The Trump campaign hyperbolic accusations left Biden with the lowest of bars to clear, and he largely did. While the Democrat at times stumbled over phrases or unleashed some unwieldy sentences, he had no major “senior moment” that would fuel questions on his competency.

Trump declined to commit to not claim victory on Election Night. After issuing falsehoods about widespread fraudulent voting, Trump didn’t commit to support a peaceful transition of power, an answer that will do little to calm fears of post-election chaos. For his part, Biden was unequivocal in disavowing violence and said he would not declare victory until the election was independently certified.

A race transformed?

It is unlikely Trump changed the direction of the race with his performance, and many of the bad habits politicians have been developing over decades were supercharged in this first debate: interruptions, manipulation of facts and rambling tirades. Both candidates struggled to actually engage each other on ideas, rather than speak in soundbites and hyperbole, illuminated the deeper problem in American politics: rhetorical hand grenades have decimated real political discussion.

For all its violence, polls show however that this first debate is already fading from memory, quickly replaced by the “October surprise”, the news of Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.

Though Trump’s health is casting a shadow on the remaining two debates between Trump and Biden, in these last 30 days of campaign, Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, are now expected to debate on October 7th in Salt Lake City. Whether they will raise the level of debate remains to be seen.

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