The question for all of us now is: Will there actually be other debates after Tuesday night’s awful, awful horror show?
‘The unrehearsed quips and exhalations that punctuated this “debate” revealed more about each man than any scripted line or practiced zinger’
Margaret Hoover is a conservative commentator, political strategist and author, and the host of Firing Line on PBS.
You might have missed the most important thing in the debate. It wasn’t the attacks or the insults, it was the asides, the telling statements uttered almost underneath the candidates’ breaths.
For example, when moderator Chris Wallace said: “Mr. President, your campaign agreed both sides get two minutes, answers uninterrupted. Your side agreed. Observe what your campaign agreed to.” Biden uttered, “He never keeps his word.” Boom.
This aside illustrated Biden’s central argument about Trump—and was the most effective way of making the point. While Biden had several rehearsed lines about the many lies of Donald Trump, this resonated, because in a moment of exasperation, the audience could see that if President Trump couldn’t play by the rules he had agreed to, how on earth can he be expected to keep his word to the American people? Biden’s aside highlighted what was clear from the exchange: The president is untrustworthy.
By contrast, President Trump’s asides were interruptions of the moderator and his opponent’s answers, intended to egg Biden on, ribbing him, trying to throw him off balance. But the president’s most revealing aside occurred when he was pressed to renounce white supremacists and instead first uttered, “Proud boys, stand back and standby” before confusingly counterattacking the anarchist group antifa. Here again, President Trump finds himself hard-pressed to condemn Proud Boys, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as a hate group know for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric known to have appeared in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally. The failure of the president to renounce a hate group when offered up the chance in front of the American people, and instead telling them to “stand by,” illustrates how Trump is fostering unrest.
The unrehearsed quips and exhalations that punctuated this “debate” revealed more about each man than any scripted line or practiced zinger. They reveal contrasting portraits of Biden’s frustration of taking seriously the opportunity to debate ideas compared to Trump’s anger-ridden sparring contest, annoyed at having to subject himself to the demeaning process of democracy.
‘Maybe Trump killed the tradition of presidential debates’
Bob Shrum is a former political strategist and director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California.
Trump’s strategy is to turn the debates into a dumpster fire on steroids. He did nothing to win over the suburbs, college-educated white women, seniors and people of color. He offered a base appeal to his base—and he can’t close the gap with that. The alienating character of his conduct was compounded by his answers and his fabrications. The white supremacist Proud Boys, he says, are supposed to “stand back and stand by” as the ballots are counted. They now appear to be using that as a slogan on their social media accounts. It was the lowest moment in the history of presidential debates.
The “Sleepy Joe” meme is over. Biden refused to be bullied, pushed back effectively, and was strong all the way through. Trump may not be toast yet, but he’s in the toaster. It’s been said that everything he touches dies, and maybe Tuesday night he killed the tradition of presidential debates. I hope not. But two more of these debates in 2020 will only debase our democracy.
‘Donald Trump made substantive discussion of anything all but impossible’
Tom Nichols is professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.
This was not a debate. It was a sustained attack on the American system of government by the president of the United States. There is nothing to comment on regarding policy; Donald Trump made substantive discussion of anything all but impossible. But Trump did make a few things clear: He takes no responsibility for the pandemic deaths that occurred on his watch, he refuses to condemn white supremacists, he wants his followers to engage in voter intimidation, and he intends to challenge any election result he doesn’t like. Any sense of decorum, any possibility that an election is a contest between Americans who want the best for the nation, went out the window as Trump railed—and lied, repeatedly—in desperation. Any reasonable viewing of this debate can only lead to two conclusions: One is that something is deeply wrong with Donald Trump, mentally and emotionally. The other is that the president will attack anyone and anything, that he will sacrifice any principle, ignore any norm, and even that he will violate any law that he thinks stands in the way of staying in office. Trump has brought a new disgrace upon his own country, and we should be horrified that our fellow citizens, our children, our allies—and especially our enemies—have now seen the United States brought low in a way few of us could have imagined possible even five years ago.
‘The moderator should have the power to cut off a candidate’s microphone’
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent. He is writing a history of the Democratic Party.
What happened Tuesday night was not a debate but a confirmation. Both Trump and Biden revealed what any American who has been paying attention to this campaign and this presidency and were honest with themselves already knew: Donald Trump is a narcissistic, insecure bully who is incapable of admitting even the slightest failure or displaying empathy ever to anyone. Joe Biden is a career politician of average intelligence who inspires hardly anyone but genuinely cares about individuals and a society in pain. Every answer—or rather every interruption and insult—just supplied more evidence of those realities.
But Trump came off worse because he could not play off an adoring crowd that would have cheered his belittling attacks. In struggling to dominate both Biden and the moderator, he looked and sounded like an aggressive boor whom few people would tolerate as a party or dinner guest.
One more thing we learned that should also be obvious: In the next two of these events, if they occur, the moderator should have the power to cut off a candidate’s microphone if he interrupts his rival. Otherwise, Americans should boycott the non-debates and read a book or find a playoff basketball or baseball game to watch instead.
‘The most significant thing that happened was when millions of Americans just tuned out’
Charles Ellison is a political strategist and talk-radio host.
Joe Biden should consider not participating in the remaining debates—seriously. This was not productive. The most significant thing that happened was probably at 9:30 p.m., that moment a half-hour in when millions of Americans just tuned out and possibly changed the channel, too.
Tuesday night showed the American people that the current president has no interest in a productive and civil exchange on what his plan is for navigating the country through a crisis—should his attempt to suppress and steal the election succeed. He has no plan, and he’s not interested in one. The problem here is that I can’t really remember a thing Trump said the entire time. The president was actually talking all over himself the entire time. The most alarming points in this conversation that people will remember: 1) an American president still refusing to condemn white domestic terrorists and throwing out bizarre activation codes (“stand back, stand by” to the Proud Boys). And: 2) an American president so frightened of losing that he again suggested there would be widespread voter fraud.
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