December 4, 2020

Worst Presidential Debate Ever

“Chaos.” “Painful.” “Dispiriting.” “The worst presidential debate in American history.” “The lowest point in American political culture in my lifetime.”

You get the idea. These are responses, from Donald Trump supporters and Donald Trump opponents, to the first 2020 presidential debate Tuesday night. I detect a note of shell shock and sickened recoil from the partisans of both candidates, greater than I’ve ever noticed before.

Some of us can remember when debates were decorous, when candidates spoke respectfully of each other and sometimes granted each other’s good faith. A more contentious tone and dismissive attitude toward opponents appeared in the first baby boomer debate, between then-Vice President Dan Quayle and his successor former Vice President Al Gore in 1992 (both younger men than Donald Trump or Joe Biden).

A similarly contentious VP debate came in 2012, when then-Vice President Joe Biden pummeled challenger Paul Ryan with constant interruptions, raucous ridicule and scornful laughter. Which wasn’t greeted, as I recall, with the lamentations we see now from much of the press.

On Tuesday, Trump subjected Biden to similar treatment, and Biden responded with contempt and colloquial jibes. When Trump pressed him to answer moderator Chris Wallace’s reasonable question of whether he’d pack the Supreme Court with additional justices, Biden replied, “Would you shut up, man?”

In CBS’ snap poll, 48% said Joe Biden won the debate, and 41% said Donald Trump did. That’s almost identical to the 49% to 43% lead Biden holds in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. So perhaps the debate made no difference. Or perhaps both candidates’ supporters were equally likely to watch and say their man won.

Both candidates seem to have carried out, in rough-and-ready style, their or their campaign managers’ strategies.

The obvious Biden strategy was to stay cool, make no mistakes and show no sign of cognitive impairment — as he has occasionally showed on the campaign trail. This is in line with a campaign schedule that, even granting the need to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, is the opposite of strenuous. The idea is that he’s ahead and shouldn’t risk blowing his lead.

The Biden campaign has called an early-morning “lid” — an announcement it will make no news — on at least 11 days in September. Early lids were common in Ronald Reagan’s August vacations to his ranch in the mountains above Santa Barbara. They’re less common — though occasionally required for debate prep — in the September before the election.

Biden has been blatant about not taking a stand on Supreme Court packing: He won’t take one because it might be an issue, something voters might consider, to his detriment, before the election. Let them wait till later. Similarly, he says he doesn’t favor the Green New Deal and then says, astonishingly, that it would pay for itself. He’s been for and against fracking. He blames Trump for the recession while suggesting he’s for longer lockdowns.

He’s not the first non-incumbent candidate to straddle issues or misstate facts. And Biden supporters are so sure that Trump always lies that they wouldn’t put up their umbrellas if he said it was raining.

The obvious Trump strategy is to employ Biden’s 2012 tactics against Ryan: constant interruptions and loud ridicule in the hope of rattling the older candidate and eliciting an incoherent response or a lapse in concentration. But Biden doesn’t seem to have cracked. As National Review editor Rich Lowry tweeted, “I agree with everyone who says the debate is hard to grade on any traditional scale, but the key takeaway is that Trump set out to make Biden crack and it didn’t happen.”

Perhaps there was another goal to this strategy. Pollster Frank Luntz, conducting perhaps his millionth focus group, reported that some participants found the debate so unpleasant that “it actually made them less likely to vote for any candidate.” That could work to Trump’s advantage. His support, always under 50%, stays solid above 40%.

His 2016 victory was possible because neither major party nominee got the votes of 6% of the electorate — the highest percentage since 1980 and 1968. So it’s to Trump’s advantage to turn soft Biden supporters into third-party voters or non-voters entirely. A contentious, chaotic, painful debate may be one way to do that.

Ultimately, the most powerful argument is that they’re not the other guy. Trump’s repeated failures to make his own case intelligibly and Biden’s unembarrassed refusals to take stands on key issues: Chaotic. Painful. Dispiriting.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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26 Responses

  1. I don’t think this helped either one. Respect n sticking to answering the questions would be enough. This was a disaster n having an unbiased moderator would be best. Wallace totally catered to Biden which was so obvious only allowed further disrespect to the President.

  2. The real question is: Why was Biden afraid to be searched for listening devices. I saw the picture of the wire sticking out of his coat and it sure looked like a speaker wire or mic wire. Seems to me that Biden and his handlers were afraid he would be found out. I think all of which was to cover for Biden’s increasing dementia.

    1. I don’t have dimension, or whatever you said, you know that thing you said, you know, everyone know that thing, what was the question again? (line please)

  3. I think Joe Biden had a mic in his ear. There is no way he could have answered the questions he did answer without one. He has a way to read his answers in his so called rallies. The media and people have the questions to ask him. It was really bad that President Trump had to debate Chris Wallace also. Joe Biden called our troops bastards. Nothing said about that. He won’t answer questions about the Supreme Court and Wallace says nothing about that. Joe Biden and Harris both put the African American people in jail for years, then Joe Biden calls Trump a racist. SMH what i see in Joe Biden and Harris and Chris Wallace is two- faced. You all might not like Trump’s tone, but at least he’s honest. Trump 2020

  4. “And Biden supporters are so sure that Trump always lies that they wouldn’t put up their umbrellas if he said it was raining.” I love it! That’s exactly the attitude the liberals (Dems) have about Trump.

    1. Trump is evil, he hates all the things the Demoncrats like, bribes, kickbacks, payoffs, violence, looting, riots, murder, baby killings, racism, oh wait, I think I said too much.

  5. Trump won the debate hands down. He was debating Biden and Mike Wallace. Biden was wearing a mic because he only believes what the radicals tell him to say and that’s exactly what they were doing, telling him what to say. He doesn’t have a clue about what he believes! Trump is honest with the people and he’s smart. He has always has been honest in what he believes and he’s been telling that to the American people years before he ran for President. He has and he will make America Great Again!!!! Trump for President in 2020 or we’re finished as a free country!!! Prayers for Trump now and always.

  6. That spectacle was in no way a debate! That was pure and simple a cluster f_ _ _! That was one of the most disgraceful displays of fake news and bullying by the left that the majority has ever seen. Sad! People should be so ashamed of themselves.

  7. Second debate either Trump walks to Biden knocking him out and pulls out the ear device to show the world OR…
    have a bare knuckle boxing match with winner take all. No TKO, just a flat on the canvas twitching body of the loser. Trump will win that one while eating a Mcfish sammie, large fries and coke no problem. Resurvey would be Four more years for Trump with Biden cryin’ tears!

  8. You all should be ashamed of yourselves, picking on Biden. He is the best candidate for President Amerika has ever had.
    Shame, shame, shame!

    1. I have always hated Dizzny. Overpriced long lined tourist trap. Named after a well known child predator. Why would anyone take there children there?

  9. Calm down Mickey, there is no reason to blow a gasket (or Biden). The Republicans will vote for Biden’s I am soooo sure.

    1. You believe that the. I am sure if you had a brain, you would take it out and play with it. OR play with something else.

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