Dan Balz: a Dispiriting First Faceoff — and an Insult to America

No one alive has ever seen a presidential debate like Tuesday night’s unseemly shout fest between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden – 90 minutes of invective, interruptions and personal insults. It was an insult to the public as well, and a sad example of the state of American democracy five weeks before the election.

On the margins, the debate probably did more to help Biden than the president, at a moment when Trump needed to change the shape and trajectory of the campaign. But that’s not what people will remember. Even partisans locked into their choices were probably dispirited at what they were witnessing. One can only imagine what the next two debates between the two men will look like.

For decades, general-election debates have provided Americans with the opportunity to measure the candidates in an open forum, with moderators aiming to stay out of the way when possible. They have always included showmanship and sharp exchanges, but within the boundaries of what people expect of their presidents. All of that went out the window Tuesday night.

The tone of the debate was established by Trump in the opening minutes, and it never changed to the end of the evening. The president constantly ignored moderator Chris Wallace’s repeated pleas to maintain order as he took every opportunity and more to verbally hector Biden, throw his rival off balance and take up as much space as possible. This was the Trump who lives on Twitter, not someone who occupies the highest office in the land.

Biden, advised to maintain his cool, constantly looked peevish at Trump’s behavior, responding at times with well-prepared rejoinders but also with dismissive verbal broadsides. Exasperated at one point, he shot back at the president, “Will you shut up, man?” Biden cleared the low bar of expectations that the Trump campaign had inexplicably set for him but hardly delivered a shining performance.

The dreary debate fittingly ended as it began, in a moment that foreshadowed a tumultuous and divisive end to the election, as Trump pressed his argument, without evidence, that mail ballots are rife with fraud and the election therefore will be invalid.

Trump declined to say that he would ask his supporters to stay calm until a final count had been validated and instead chillingly indicated that he plans to rile up his backers to challenge and contest the counting everywhere possible. He said he would accept the outcome only if he believed the election had been fair.

Biden said he would accept the outcome and predicted that Trump would too, once the votes were counted, no matter the winner. Perhaps.

The reality TV star president knows one speed on a debate stage: to attack, to bully his opponent and to ignore the rules. For Wallace, a tough and skilled interviewer, the debate was a nightmare.

“Mr. President! Mr. President,” he exclaimed at one point as Trump refused to stay silent when Biden was answering a question. “Gentlemen!” he said at another moment as the two sparred loudly about Trump’s attack on Biden’s son Hunter.

Rare were the moments when the two nominees actually discussed their differences calmly and clearly in a debate that ranged across several topics, including the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court, the economy, racial justice and violence in American cities. More often than not, rather than engaging in exchanges that even bordered on civil, Trump and Biden talked over and past each other.

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Source: The Hour