If anybody thought, going into Tuesday night’s debate, that Donald Trump couldn’t go any lower, they were quickly disabused of that foolish assumption. Trump flew out of control and stayed unhinged for more than ninety minutes.
There is no evidence that Trump persuaded suburban women (a demographic of interest to Republican operatives) or anyone else to support his reelection bid. Instead, Trump played solely to — and for — his already committed fans.
The incumbent was particularly repulsive at the very end.
As Joe Biden talked proudly of his deceased son who served in Iraq and won a Bronze Star — noting that Beau Biden was not a “loser” – Trump interrupted to say that Biden’s son was a drug addict dishonorably discharged from the military..
He was, of course, smearing Biden’s second son Hunter. It was obviously a moment for which the former vice president had not prepared. Biden responded, however, by not replying to Trump, but talking to the country, noting that his son had a drug problem, which he dealt with… like many Americans watching.
The answer summed up a set-to which in one respect resembled the first of all presidential debates, Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960.
Sixty years ago, Nixon spoke to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy spoke to Americans, many of whom had doubts about him going into the Chicago debate.
Donald Trump practically made Richard Nixon look like a a truth-teller and an honest man. He did not want Biden to be able to complete a thought.
The result was one of the ugliest spectacle Americans have ever seen.
There were no high points. Just lows.
The worst came about midway through. Given repeated opportunities, Trump refused to denounce right-wing extremists and kept the dog whistles coming.
He refused to say he would accept results of the election, telling supporters to “stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys loudly cheered on social media.
“No hyperbole: The incumbent’s behavior this evening is the lowest moment in the history of the presidency since Andrew Johnson’s racist state papers,” tweeted historian Jon Meacham, also an acclaimed author.
Biden’s strategy was to pivot. When Trump launched an initial attack on his son Hunter, the former vice president delivered one of his best lines, telling viewers: “It’s not about my family, or his family. It’s about your family.”
Trump tried his usual riff about Biden wanting to wreck America’s suburbs, leaving unspoken the racist dog whistle – people of color moving to the suburbs.
“Our suburbs would disappear,” intoned the incumbent.
“He wouldn’t know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn,” Biden countered. He explained that suburbs look like America in their diversity.
Biden added that suburban residents are hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic, losing jobs to the coronavirus, and sharing in the uncertainty of Trump’s America.
Biden is likely to be faulted for letting Trump dominate the debate.
The challenger was eclipsed in post-debate discussion on cable television networks. Biden was “rarely in sight tonight,” veteran national pundit Ron Brownstein, adding: “but it hardly mattered. In that way debate is microcosm for the election. Fifty-five percent of the country doesn’t want Trump as president.”
Biden’s job was similar to that of John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Ronald Reagan twenty years later. The Delawarean, who polls show is leading the incumbent nationally and in swing states, had to reassure Americans he is up to the job.
At times, Biden seemed to adopt the “rope-a-dope” strategy used long ago by Mohammed Ali when he fought George Foreman (a fight held in the Congo that Ali called the “Rumble in the Jungle”).
Ali let Foreman flail, round after round, until the champ lost it.
Biden didn’t score a knockout. Trump was still talking as Wallace ended the debate. But he let the air out of Trump.
“It is hard to get any word in with this clown,” the former vice president said at one point. At another point, Biden said: “He needs to shush for a moment.”
The rejoinders from Trump were vicious, but not very effective.
Trump engaged in self-pity, telling Biden: “They give you good press and then give me bad press.” When Biden challenged Trump to get off the golf course and negotiate a COVID-19 pandemic aid package, Trump replied: “You probably play more golf than I do.” (Getting Trump to and from the links, mostly at Trump golf courses, has cost taxpayers $133 million at least.)
As a boy in Bellingham, I once watched famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty tame a cage full of snarling cats.
Chris Wallace, I saw Clyde Beatty, and you’re no Clyde Beatty.
The Fox host did not admonish Trump for ignoring rules of debate, to which his campaign had agreed, until almost one hour and fifteen minutes had elapsed.
Near the end of the un-debate, Wallace did an unexpected pivot to climate.
He put a climate question to Trump, who repeated his inane claim that California’s forests are burning because of debris left on the forest floor by state officials. (Fifty-seven percent of the Golden State’s forests, however, are federal land.)
Biden tried to explain that clean energy will mean millions of jobs, and four million retrofitted buildings. It’s a theme perfected by Washington’s United States Senator Maria Cantwell, who argues that the United States must wrest the lead in twenty-first century technology away from foreign competitors – principally China.
Alas, Biden appeared a bit shaky on the subject. He needs a better grasp of his own energy and environmental justice plan, which is in large part the work of folks who advised Governor Jay Inslee in his brief presidential bid.
Biden was, of course, ceaselessly heckled by Trump.
During the 2016 debates, Trump repeatedly lost control in the late going, skillfully goaded by Hillary Clinton. What we saw tonight in Cleveland was perhaps a metaphor for what a second Trump term would look alike, a complete loss of control, the preposterous belief that he is always right, with enablers who will take America down the path to autocratic rule and full blown fascism.
What must America’s erstwhile allies have thought of last night’s performance by the incumbent? They were probably appalled.
So were many, many Americans.
The instant post-debate poll by CNN found Biden the “winner” by a sixty to twenty-eight percent margin, and more credible by a similar two-to-one margin.
Biden also won with his own supporters, securing $3.8 million in a single hour, according to his deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield.
Forget the silly “Trade Barbs” language of the Wall Street Journal, or “both sides” false equivalency on television, or a particularly inane Seattle Times tweet: “President Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden sparred in their first debate.”
Faced with the challenge of turning around his bid for a second term, Donald Trump turned what was billed as a debate into a debacle.
“That was… bad,” said Stephen Nicholson, a recent graduate of The Evergreen State College, speaking for millions of viewers.
Or in words of former Barack Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs: “It was an epic disaster for America and for American democracy.”