Donald Trump is the only man to blame
“Mr President. Mr President. President Trump. Please,” Chris Wallace pleaded.
Yesterday’s atrocity of a presidential debate was littered with quotes like this from the moderator as he tried, with no success whatsoever, to get Donald Trump to shut up.
“Mr President, can you let him finish sir?”
“Let him speak.”
“Please let him speak, Mr President.”
“Let me ask my question.”
“Mr President, I’m the moderator of the debate and I would like you to let me ask my question.”
Wallace has copped a ton of criticism for his handling of the debate, including from Mr Trump, who’s complained that it was a “two on one” contest.
That’s nonsense. One person, and one person alone, is responsible for the national embarrassment Americans suffered yesterday: Donald Trump.
There is no point in pretending otherwise, nor in drawing a false equivalence between the two candidates. That would be dishonest.
The truth is no other presidential nominee in US history – including 2016 – has ever acted the way Mr Trump did on that stage.
This was not a case of Mr Trump and Mr Biden behaving as badly as each other, or of a biased moderator trying to grandstand and make himself the story.
It was a President refusing to show the barest level of respect for his opponent, his constituents or his own country’s political conventions.
Mr Trump quite obviously had no intention of holding a civil discussion. He showed up with a plan to harangue and insult Mr Biden – and Wallace – into submission.
What was Wallace supposed to do, yield the floor to him permanently? Give up entirely on enforcing the rules Mr Trump’s own campaign had agreed to ahead of time? The President left him with no choice but to intervene.
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The result was by far the worst, least productive debate any of us can recall.
Watching from the other side of the world, you despaired for the United States. Somehow, a nation that considers itself the world’s leading democracy has become incapable of holding a simple political discussion without it descending into farce.
Seventy million Americans were watching too. They were hoping to get a better idea of what Mr Trump and Mr Biden were offering them; what each man would do with the power of the presidency if entrusted with it for the next four years.
They were not tuning in to watch two incoherent old men shout witless abuse at each other for 90 minutes.
For much of the debate, Mr Biden could not even get through a single sentence, let alone a substantive explanation of his policies, without Mr Trump interrupting him.
I’m not going to run through every example of this behaviour, because that would literally require me to transcribe the entire debate. Read the whole thing here if you want to.
But here’s a chunky exchange that illustrates what I’m talking about. It came as the Democrat tried to describe his proposed healthcare plan.
Biden: “Anyone who qualifies for Medicare, excuse me, Medicaid would automatically be enrolled in the public option. Number one. Number two-”
Trump: “Joe, you agreed with Bernie Sanders, who is far left, on the manifesto, we call it, and that gives you socialised medicine.”
Biden: “Look, hey. I’m not going to listen to him. The fact of the matter is, I beat Bernie Sanders.”
Trump: “Not by much.”
Biden: “I beat him by a hell of a lot.”
Trump: “Not by much. Pocahontas (that’s his nickname for Elizabeth Warren) would have left two days earlier-”
Biden: “All he knows how to do – look, here’s the deal. I got very lucky, and I’m going to get very lucky tonight as well.”
Trump: “With what? With what?”
Biden: “Here’s the deal. The fact is that everything he’s saying so far is simply a lie. I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar. I want to make sure that-”
Trump: “You were last in your class, not first in your class.”
Wallace: “Mr President, can you let him finish, sir?”
Biden: “He doesn’t know how to do that.”
Trump: “You’d be surprised. You’d be surprised. Go ahead Joe. Go on, Joe. Listen, you agreed with Bernie Sanders at the manifesto-”
Wallace: “Let him speak.”
Biden: “There is no manifesto, number one-”
Wallace: “Please let him speak, Mr President.”
Trump: “He just lost the left. You just lost the left. You agreed with Bernie Sanders on a plan-”
Biden: “Folks, folks, do you have any idea what this clown is doing? Mr President-”
Trump: “It’s socialised medicine.”
This is not debate. It’s trolling.
You can see that Mr Biden was complicit, to an extent, in the unedifying spectacle. On top of calling Mr Trump a “clown” in that exchange, he went on to label his opponent a “fool” and “the worst president America has ever had”.
“Will you shut up, man?” he snapped rudely at one point.
But there is no real comparison between the two. Mr Trump was the constant, relentless instigator.
At every turn, he sought to drag the debate into the gutter.
Asked why he was continuing to hold large political rallies with no social distancing in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, potentially putting his own supporters’ health at risk, the President mocked Mr Biden for not doing the same.
“If you could get the crowds you would have done the same thing. But you can’t. Nobody cares. Nobody cares,” he said.
When Mr Biden suggested Mr Trump needed to get “a lot smarter” in his handling of the virus, the President chimed in with a remark about his opponent’s marks in law school decades ago.
“Did you use the word smart? You graduated the lowest or the next lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me.”
At one point, Mr Biden brought up his late son Beau, a military veteran who died at the age of 46 in 2015. The President treated it as an opportunity to attack his opponent’s other son Hunter, who is one of his favourite punching bags.
“Are you talking Hunter? Are you talking about Hunter?” Mr Trump interjected.
“I’m talking about my son Beau,” Mr Biden told him.
“I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonourably discharged for cocaine use,” said Mr Trump.
“That’s not true, he was not dishonourably discharged,” said Mr Biden.
“My son, like a lot of people at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
Set aside the President’s incredibly casual disregard for Beau Biden’s death.
In what universe could anyone think it acceptable to go after a candidate’s son, on a presidential debate stage, for his drug addiction? How could that possibly be relevant to the decision American voters have to make?
Mr Trump’s son, Donald Jr, went on air with conservative commentator Glenn Beck today and called Mr Biden’s son “crackhead Hunter”. Just in case you didn’t get his father’s point.
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Mr Trump did not need to stoop to this level. Believe it or not, it is possible to vehemently disagree with someone and treat them with a basic level of respect at the same time.
He could have spent the debate honestly critiquing Mr Biden’s record and policies, or hyping up his own.
For a glorious two minutes right at the beginning, I actually thought he might. Mr Trump started strongly, giving a very effective answer on his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. He easily got the better of Mr Biden on the issue.
But no. That marked the end of any dignified discussion.
The rest of the debate was conducted as though it were an episode of Jerry Springer or an argument with a Twitter troll.
Mr Trump seems to think the tactic worked for him. Speaking to reporters today, he bragged that he had won the debate “easily”.
“By every measure, we won the debate easily last night. I think he was very weak. He looked weak. He was whining,” he said.
“Yeah, we won the debate by almost every poll that I saw. If you look at the various polls, and I looked at about six of them, and we won every one of them.”
Post-debate polls don’t matter, of course – you might recall Mitt Romney trouncing Barack Obama 72 per cent to 20 after the first debate in 2012, only to lose a fairly lopsided election – but for the record, the polls in real life were actually awful for Mr Trump.
CNN’s one had Mr Biden winning by 60-28. CBS had it 48-41 in the Democrat’s favour. Data for Progress had it at 52-39. In Ipsos’s poll it was 60-33.
Worse, perhaps, were the results from a focus group conducted by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
He asked a group of 16 undecided voters to describe the candidates’ performances in a single word or phrase.
They had lukewarm things to say about Mr Biden, at best – “better than expected”, “nice guy but lacking vision”, “predictable”, “attentive and rehearsed”, “showed restraint”, “somewhat evasive”, and so on.
Here are some of the words they came up with for Mr Trump: “unhinged”, “bully”, “arrogant”, “puzzling”, “un-American”, “horrid” and, perhaps ironically given his attack on Hunter Biden, “crackhead”.
The most positive assessments he got were “forceful” and “an ass, but a confident ass”.
The reviews from Mr Trump’s Republican colleagues were not much better, though they were all careful to criticise the debate in general, rather than the President specifically.
“I thought it was an embarrassment,” said Senator Mitt Romney.
“It was the least educational debate of any presidential debate I’ve ever seen,” said Senator Susan Collins.
“I think there was so much that was just awful and over-the-top, including both of these men speaking over one another for 90 minutes,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Senator Ben Sasse was a little blunter, calling the debate a “sh**show”.
No doubt there are millions of Americans – and a handful of Australians too – who thought Mr Trump’s performance yesterday was fabulous. Maybe they regarded his endless rudeness, disrespect and obnoxiousness as signs that he was “fighting”.
As far as most people are concerned, though, those are not virtues.
The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced it will tweak its rules and add more “structure” for the next two meetings between Mr Trump and Mr Biden, in an effort to avoid a repeat of the same trainwreck.
It’s probably a pointless move. The rules don’t matter unless both candidates care, to some extent at least, about following them.
Yesterday we saw what happens when one guy decides he doesn’t. It was a mess, and no moderator could have done anything to fix it.