The first 10 minutes of the Tuesday night presidential debate were, frankly, some of the worst stuff anyone has ever seen. Donald Trump kept interrupting Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. Biden looked stunned and was mostly unable to finish a sentence. The silence of the small, COVID-era audience made everything weird. Trump just kept interrupting—taunting, really—and it was horrible!
After that, well, it didn’t get that much better. It wasn’t a civil, detailed exchange about plans and values. CNN’s Dana Bash, in her post-debate summing-up, called the whole thing a “shitshow.” But there were at moments when Biden got to speak for more than a minute without being jabbered over and through, and moments when Wallace got Trump to answer a direct question. Here, based on these intelligible sections of the broadcast, is one unfailingly accurate pundit’s assessment of which candidates helped reach the voters they needed to reach and which did not.
Candidates who, at the very least, tried to reach undecided and otherwise wavering voters: Joe Biden.
Biden, as he did during the primary debates, occasionally fumbled over his answers and tossed in half-phrased allusions that probably didn’t land with people who didn’t already know what, for example, methane regulations are all about. As mentioned, he initially looked taken aback and unable to concentrate because of the frequency with which Trump was interrupting him.
But Biden had one trick up his sleeve, and it was a good one: turning to face the stage-right camera (rather than looking toward Wallace or at Trump) and making a show of ignoring whatever Trump was saying in order to give an assessment, straight onto America’s TV screens, of the big-picture condition of the country, often one that incorporated second-person “your family” or “people at home” language. It was the classic posture of a politician addressing a message to the entire public—supporters, undecided voters, and even the opposing side, if they care to listen.
Biden repeatedly, for example, turned to the viewers at home as he steered the discussion back to Trump’s culpability for the COVID-19 pandemic, which polls consistently say is the No. 1 issue in the election. “How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?” he asked. “How many were in a situation where you lost your mom or dad or couldn’t even speak to them and had a nurse holding the phone so you could, in fact, say goodbye?” He tied the pandemic to the economy—obvious, but fair—and observed that “millionaires and billionaires” like Trump are still doing fine while “you folks at home living in Scranton and all these small and working-class towns” are generally not. Later, he conveyed the scope of the crisis in stark terms, noting that Trump “will be the first president of the United States to leave office having fewer jobs in his administration than when he became president.” He talked about the paradox of “reopening” the economy before COVID is contained: “The idea that he is insisting that we go forward and open when you have almost half the states in America with a significant increase in COVID deaths and cases, in the United States of America, and he wants to open it more?” Again: obvious stuff. But reflective of the views of the majority of people who are going to vote in the election!
When the subject turned to race relations and civil rights, Biden had a more strategically narrow line to walk: A significant chunk of the people in his party, particularly younger ones, believe that radical change is necessary to address racial oppression. But a perhaps equally significant chunk of older, white Democrats and independents say they place a greater value on concepts like “stability.” Biden had to talk to both groups.
He did so by emphasizing that he recognizes that the current situation is not tenable—but doing it in terms of values rather than specifics. A majority of potential voters may not agree on whether the police should be abolished, but they agree that Joe Biden’s beliefs about racial progress are more in line with theirs than Donald Trump’s are. Said Biden about the summer’s protests and Trump’s response to them: “It’s about equity and equality. It’s about decency. It’s about the Constitution. And we have never walked away from trying to acquire equity for everyone, equality for the whole of America. But—we’ve never accomplished it, but we’ve never walked away from it like he has done.” He defended the “racial sensitivity” office trainings that Trump has forbidden the federal government from conducting: “The fact is that there is racial insensitivity, and people have to be made aware of what other people feel like, and what insults them and what is demeaning to them. It is important that people know.” At one point, he mocked Trump for living in “1950” and not realizing that Black and Hispanic people have moved to “the suburbs” too.
Biden concluded, in discussing Wallace’s loaded closing topic of “election integrity,” with a reassuring note about the stable transition of the presidency. “If we get the votes, it is all over. He will go. He cannot stay in power. It won’t happen. It won’t happen. Vote. Make sure you understand you have in your control for the country will look like the next four years. Will it be a change, or four more years of these lies?”
Biden was exasperated and exhausted, and that came through. But he was also compassionate and level-headed.
On the other hand:
Candidates who seemingly had no strategy except ignoring the debate format to make constant condescending, belittling remarks about Biden that were essentially incomprehensible to anyone who is not already heavily invested in the sealed-off semantics and mythology of Fox News prime-time shows and MAGA Facebook memes: Donald Trump.
You can read here about the moment that Trump told a white nationalist street gang, the Proud Boys, to “stand by.” But there was so much more! Picture yourself as a suburban Arizona voter concerned about the country’s future, listening to the president of the U.S. make the following choices about what subjects to bring up to a bipartisan national TV audience with an election a month away:
• “You said you went to Delaware State, but you forgot the name of your college.” This is a reference to a debunked claim that has bounced around right-wing sites such as the Murdoch-owned New York Post and the Washington Times about Biden not knowing where he went to school.
• About Biden and masks: “Every time you see him, he is wearing one. He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” Most of the public favors mask-wearing; the idea that someone would be wearing a mask too much is alien outside the section of the Venn diagram where anti-vaccine conspiracists meet the president’s most fervent loyalists.
• “The mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son $3.5 million. What did he do to deserve that?” Trump’s ultimate source here appears to be a “confidential document” cited in a Republican Senate report, also recently written up in the New York Post, that is said to show a payment to a company Biden’s son Hunter co-founded. Trump brought up the $3.5 million twice more.
• “It’s all on tape, by the way—you gave the idea for the Logan Act against Gen. Flynn.” This is a “Deep State” conspiracy theory outlined on the notoriously unreliable website of the Hill. You can read about in the Washington Post here; it’s based on some ambiguously worded notes involving the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
• “You saw what happened today with Hillary Clinton where it was a whole big con job.” A reference to Tuesday’s decision by John Ratcliffe, Trump’s director of national intelligence, to release an anti-Clinton Russian intelligence assessment that was widely understood to be bogus and created as disinformation.
• “They are sending millions of ballots all over the country. They have found them in creeks.” The Washington Post notes tastefully that it is “unclear what the creek reference alluded to.”
Then there was this interjection, when Wallace wasn’t even talking to Trump at all:
Wallace: Vice President Biden, you are holding much smaller events—
Trump: Nobody will show up. Nobody shows up to his rallies.
Great; thanks for adding that, president of the United States! When Biden was talking about his son Beau, who is dead, having served in Iraq, Trump interrupted to note that “Hunter Biden was thrown out [of the military] because of cocaine use.”
In contrast to Biden, Trump concluded his thoughts about election integrity by declaring that the United States is not capable of counting ballots and holding an election. “You know that it cannot be done,” the president said to Chris Wallace, about the orderly transition of democratic power.
Our government is a disaster is a tricky message for an incumbent president to try to win with. And having just seen Trump blast his way through the floorboards and sub-basement of the debate “expectations game,” ending up gurgling and hollering in the sewers, it was not very reassuring to hear him predict that the election itself will go even worse.