No winners in the first Trump-Biden presidential debate but there was a loser: The American voter

A chaotic and ill-mannered food-fight that lasted 98 minutes left no one with any idea as to whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump was more deserving of being the next president

Karan Pradhan September 30, 2020 13:36:54 IST
No winners in the first Trump-Biden presidential debate but there was a loser: The American voter

President Donald Trump listens to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden during the first presidential debate. AP

"Proud Boys, stand back, stand by. But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about Antifa and the Left because this is not right-wing problem... This is a left-wing problem."

Thus spake President Donald Trump when asked by debate moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace if he would condemn White supremacists. For the uninitiated, Proud Boys is a neo-fascist far-Right organisation that broke away from the Alt-Right movement in 2016. That this remark stood out most over the 98 minutes of the first presidential debate between Trump and former US vice-president Joe Biden goes some way in summing up just how disastrous the event was.

Whether or not Trump refused to condemn White supremacists and instead exhorted them to 'stand by' is immaterial.
Whether or not Biden referred to Trump on two separate occasions as a clown is immaterial. Whether or not Trump actually stated in the past that nuking hurricanes might be a solution to them is immaterial.

At the end of the day, there was very little of consequence to take away from an event that was too chaotic to deserve the status of being a 'debate'. The showdown in Cleveland, Ohio degenerated into a boorish and ill-mannered food-fight barely 10 minutes after kick-off and produced no real winners and only one big loser: The American voter. In fact, the tone and precedent for how the evening would unfold appeared to have been set by Donald Trump Jr in his media interviews before the debate.

Responding to a question about why the US should re-elect his father, Trump Jr played that well-worn "economy's the best it's ever been" tune before spiralling off into attacks on Biden's son's Hunter and his allegedly shady dealings with China, Ukraine and whoever else came to mind. Wittingly or otherwise, Junior tipped the Trump camp's hand: When in doubt, attack Hunter.

All heat, no light

In the moments after the conclusion of the debate, former New Jersey governor and a member of Trump's debate prep team, Chris Christie, noted on ABC News, "With all that heat, you lose the light." And he was absolutely right, because from the time Trump interrupted his opponent during the first question (on the Supreme Court) of the evening by intoning, "Your party wants to go Socialist... they want to dominate you, Joe", proceedings turned scrappier with every question. For the record, Biden responded with a Judge Dredd-esque "I am the Democratic Party right now".

After a maelstrom of personal attacks, denials and constant interruptions, Trump had claimed he paid "millions of dollars in taxes" in 2016 and 2017, denied well-documented remarks made by himself and found a way to dance around answering most questions by offering up his own unique brand of word salads.

Meanwhile, Biden had given in to the urge to resort to unparliamentary language aimed at Trump on international television by calling him '[Vladimir] Putin's puppy', a 'clown', a 'liar' and a 'racist', and telling him to 'shut up'.

With so much bluster on display, there was no room for sensible argument and the first debate — in terms of what we learned about policy, plans for the future or reasons to vote for one candidate over the other — can be considered a write-off. For instance, exchanges like "You're the worst president America has ever had", followed by "There's never been an administration or president who has done more than me" belong on the playground and not in a debate between two men vying to be the most powerful person on the planet (a title that, for now, appears safe from the grasp of a certain Xi Jinping).

To his credit, Wallace grew into his role as a moderator as the debate wore on, but for the first half at least, he was timid, ineffectual and unable to control the bickering between the president and his predecessor's former deputy. Eventually, Biden lost his cool and fumed, "It's hard to get a single word in with this clown." By that point, Wallace, who had begun to hit his stride, called on both candidates to observe decorum and admonished Trump in the manner of a headmaster by saying, "Frankly, you've been doing more interrupting." To which, and in the manner of a naughty schoolkid, Trump replied, "Well, he does plenty."

To return to Christie's words, it was very difficult to find any light amidst all this heat.

Sticking to the playbook

On the strength of Tuesday evening's showing, both candidates appeared to have been thoroughly coached in terms of overall strategy and they stuck to their guns throughout.

For Trump, this meant walking in with a couple of memorised anecdotes (apocryphal or otherwise) about Hunter's alleged indiscretions — ranging from claims that he received $3.5 million from the wife of the mayor of Moscow to accusations of him having been 'dishonourably discharged' from the armed forces — and attacks on Biden for doing less in 47 years of public service than Trump had done in three-and-a-half years. Armed with these, the president's modus operandi appeared to be to hammer away with one or more of them every time he felt the content of the debate was getting away from him.

Elsewhere, it looked like Trump had been coached to 'play his natural game' and focus on self-aggrandisement, no matter how banal — claiming at one point, "I brought back football; it was me and I'm very happy to do it" — and disruption. He deployed both these weapons like a champion, most likely because it comes very naturally to him, and successfully derailed most of Biden's efforts to make a point. To the president's credit, he managed to frazzle the former vice-president, forcing him to fumble his way through his arguments and appear shaky.

What Biden had likely been coached on beforehand was to transform the debate into a campaign speech and eliminate Trump from proceedings.

On no less than eight occasions, the Ray-Ban Aviators aficionado looked directly into the camera and spoke to the people watching at home. Whether it was to encourage people to vote, to ask, "Folks, do you have any idea what this clown is doing?", to warn, "This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to generate racist hatred, racist division" or to state, "I'm not here to call out [Trump's] lies, Everyone knows he's a liar", Biden used the opportunity to speak directly to American voters and take his opponent out of the equation.

It would also seem that he had been warned (albeit inadequately, as we would discover) that Trump would be out to bully him and that the former vice-president should handle every provocation calmly and stick to the facts. Most importantly, he was probably told, avoid anything that resembles a slanging match. And for a while, this worked. Biden did his best to at first, laugh off Trump's assertions and brickbats and later took to closing his eyes and shaking his head, in a manner most reminiscent to that of Vice-President Mike Pence's when faced with Hillary Clinton's running mate Tim Kaine in 2016. Back then, Kaine sought to bully Pence into submission with one barb after another but came across as blustery and full of hot air.

Biden's composure quickly began to wither under Trump's avalanche, but he stuck to his script. But soon after, cracks began to appear when he resorted to name-calling, raising his volume and engaging with Trump's jabs at his family.

Ahead of the second debate, all three parties — Trump, Biden and moderator Steve Scully (political editor, C-SPAN) — will need to sharpen their strategies. If you're Trump, this means bringing some substance to the table. If you're Biden, it means rehearsing how to keep your train of thought on the rails while being constantly interrupted. And if you're Scully, it means establishing your authority very early on. It was surprising to see Wallace, who had actually moderated 2016's third presidential debate between Hillary and Trump, failing to control the debate until we were a fair way into it.

Sifting through the rubble

So, what did we really learn? Anything at all? For starters, it appears Trump's debate etiquette has actually worsened over the past four years and although he held back from calling anyone "nasty" or any using any other such epithets, his behaviour was quite unacceptable for a Head of State. It was probably fine four years ago when he was just a candidate, but he should really have known better this time around. Then again, that old adage about old dogs and new tricks comes to mind.

Moving onto the content, we've always known Trump's priorities, but his tendency to speak about business, the need to open up business and how well the economy was doing certainly underlined it. He might not be very good at business, if the New York Times exposé and Biden's counters about the state of American manufacturing and the growing trade deficit with China are anything by which to go, but he loves talking about it.

We also learned that sitting in India and continuing to labour under the delusion that Trump is good for India is something that needs to stop. Immediately. That he would unfavourably refer to the country and lump it in with Russia and China, perceived to be the biggest troublemakers in his book, on two occasions should put his Ahmedabad remarks into perspective and give commentators in India a reality check.

The Hillary experience taught us that merely having public service experience and policy ideas rooted in fact is insufficient. Biden will therefore have to go back to the drawing board and come back more confident — something he appeared to be sorely lacking at significant moments in the evening — or risk losing despite being the stronger candidate on paper. After all, no one will remember his pronouncements on setting up a fleet of electrical vehicles or how he plans to change the tax code if he is seen to be lacking confidence and fumbling his way through them.

Lastly, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, we can see that much clearer today than four years ago that Trump is extremely dangerous, for the US and the world at large. Between some waffle about wanting "immaculate air and water" in response to a question on climate change, a refusal to criticise White supremacists, and a tendency to throw the likes of Dr Anthony Fauci under the bus for his remarks about masks while refusing to be held accountable for his own statements, all the president really did was to compound existing perceptions about him and strengthen the case against him. It is clear: Trump will do what he has to in order to preserve his vote bank and that includes being soft on racists, oblivious to environmental challenges (blaming 'forest management' and 'dead trees on the forest floor' when asked if he accepted that climate change was a reality) and insisting that the election is in danger of being 'rigged'.

In summation, neither candidate was successfully able to conclusively (or even adequately) put across why they were better suited to be President of the United States. Trump was just the same Trump we've seen passing strange legislation, making stranger statements and doing the strangest things with foreign relations. Biden too did little to shake off the impression of a doddering and bumbling septuagenarian who lacks the fight to take on the divider-in-chief. The American voter who watched Tuesday night's proceedings would be justified in asking for her/his 98 minutes back.

Round 2 in Miami, Florida can't come soon enough, even if only to wash away the taste of this extremely poor first course in Cleveland. Maybe then the American voter will be given a reason to take time out of her/his evening to watch it and schedule to actually go and exercise her/his franchise.

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