Cringe. Repeat to self: “Oh my God. He has to calm down. This is nuts. The three of them are shouting all at once.”
If you were like me, that was a basic snapshot of your facial reaction and voice inside your head while viewing Tuesday night’s debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, and that was only after the first 15 minutes.
Forget conventional debate style of crafting a forceful argument, Trump favored forceful confrontation with Biden, and at times, with the besieged moderator, respected Fox News anchor Chris Wallace for most of the 90 minutes. (The spectacle of Wallace pleading “Mr. President! Let him answer! Please!” in one of several attempts to ask Trump to stop interrupting Biden and adhere to the debate format will be among the numerous exchanges remembered long after policy disagreements are forgotten.)
That’s the point.
Ever since the legendary JFK-Nixon televised debate of 1960, where the young, handsome, well-spoken Massachusetts Senator outshone the less telegenic and anxious looking Vice President Richard Nixon, it’s been style over substance, the optics over the arguments in presidential debates, which is why team Trump should now be concerned.
The irony is, despite Biden holding a comfortable lead in most national polls for many months, recent polls have shown a tightening race. Yet Trump appeared wildly defensive about his record throughout the night and missed opportunities to address his handling of the various crises of 2020, where he does have levels of public support.
Though there’s no question his administration’s handling of the earliest months of the pandemic were marked by poor coordination and arguments with his own health and scientific advisors, he needed to highlight where the progress stands now, in the fall, as things are overall in a far better position than last spring. But instead he barked back at Biden’s accusation that he “panicked” at how to handle the pandemic, allowing Biden be the one who projected empathy for the unprecedented American loss of life.
Likewise, Trump’s broader emphasis in more recent months to urge states to reopen local economies, business districts and school systems in some safe version this fall, has considerable support among the public. Articulating a calm, persuasive defense of why these approaches have helped bring more needed normalcy back to states, communities and families, could have been a sharp counterpoint to Biden’s stated suggestion that he would not rule out a national lockdown in the future. But Biden dodged being nailed down on a lockdown as things moved to the racism related protests and disturbances seen in various cities in recent months. Trump accused Biden of supporting the protest movement’s goals, including defunding police department budgets, which Biden strenuously denied. Wallace let Biden off the hook in fully answering his question of whether he supports many of the more disruptive and even violent tactics the protest movement now favors and he needs to be pressed on that further in the next debates.
They only briefly clashed on Trump’s taxes and his Supreme Court nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett but it led to a loud argument over the Affordable Care Act early on.
The final exchanges were about the integrity of the election, mail-in ballots , and what is drawing the most attention now, the question of whether the candidates would disavow extremist groups, including a White Supremacist right-wing militia group, the Proud Boys . But things ended uncomfortably as Trump seemed to equivocate, by saying of the group, “ Well, stand back and stand by” and emphasized that the left-wing group Antifa be equally addressed.
Biden, for his part, gave back as good as he got at key instances, including calling Trump “a clown”, and threw in for good measure, “you’re the worst President America has ever had.” Ouch!
But in what may have been one of the most telling moments, when Biden, exasperated by numerous non-stop interruptions by Trump, blurted out, “Will you shut up, man?” one has to wonder that tens of millions of viewers were likely thinking the same thing.