During the first segment of Tuesday’s presidential debate, President Donald Trump came out of the gate with a clear strategy to exasperate and overwhelm his Democrat rival, Joe Biden.
The freewheeling exchange began on the Supreme Court, but it quickly spun off into discussions of healthcare and ad hominem attacks from each of the two candidates.
After Biden attempted to recite a deflection about his position on court packing, Trump continued to goad him for a direct answer.
“Whatever position I take on that that’ll become the issue,” Biden said. “The issue is…”
“Are you gonna pack the court?” Trump repeatedly asked.
“Will you shut up, man?” Biden told the president.
While the moderator, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, tried to assert himself, he often failed to rein in the mercurial Trump or to fully challenge Biden’s frequent dodges on policy specifics.
As Trump mused, it felt like he was debating Wallace during some of the exchanges.
Biden, for his part, seemed to be the less charismatic of the two figures by far, but sought, as he has, to chart a contrasting path by depicting Trump’s style as chaotic.
“Like almost everything else he talks about, he does not have a plan,” Biden attempted to confront Trump regarding his efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Nonetheless, the two weeks Biden was said to have spent preparing for the debate seemed to fly out the window as he was kept on defensive during much of the 90 minute session.
Having faced few direct challenges from the media, Biden was often left flustered by the barrage of challenges to his record.
“I hate to raise my voice… ” Wallace interjected meekly and monotonously in an unintentionally comical moment during a heated exchange over Biden’s favorable treatment of China.
The rapid-fire approach prevented either candidate from offering a detailed response on any one issue, but most of the answers already seemed to be culled from the candidates’ past statements and stump speeches.
Few if any policy positions seemed to warrant a need for greater clarity or elaboration.
On the issue of race relations, for instance, Biden once again repeated an abject falsehood claiming that white supremacists had emerged from fields during a protest at the University of Virginia’s Rotunda.
However, Charlottesville is a mid-size city with no rural areas in the immediate vicinity of the school’s historic grounds. The only fields nearby are those used for playing sports.
“Close your eyes you remember what those people looked like coming out of the fields carrying torches,” Biden claimed, using the same wording used during his speech at the Democratic National Convention. “This is a president who has used everything as a dogwhistle.”
Biden went on to take Trump’s words out of context in an oft-repeated trope claiming Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly 2017 clash — a lie that Wallace used as part of one of his own questions. In fact, Trump had just finished condemning the bad actors on both the radical Right and Left when he made the remark.
Trump used the occasion not to correct the record on Biden’s embellishment but to attack the former vice president’s own shaky record with the black community, including his past statements calling them “super predators.”
He charged Biden also with having become beholden to leftist radicals to the point that he was now afraid to even mention “law and order.”
“If you say those words you’re gonna lose all of your radical supporters,” Trump told him.
Biden rebuffed Trump’s characterization when confronted about his capitulation to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s socialized healthcare plan.
“The party is me right now,” he said. “I am the Democratic party right now. The platform of the Democratic party is what I in fact approved of.”
However, he quickly took off the mantle of party leader when asked by Wallace why he had not stepped in to ask state and local officials in Portland to end the months of violent race riots.
“I don’t hold public office now,” he insisted. “I am a former vice president. I’ve made it clear in my public statements that the violence should be prosecuted…”
Trump wisely knew when to step away from challenging Biden, as when he allowed him to ramble on dryly about a hollow environmental plan.
While the details seemed lost even to Biden himself, Trump scored the take-home points by emphasizing its excessive cost—$100 trillion, according to the president—and getting Biden himself to accidentally state his support for the Green New Deal.
“The Green New Deal will pay for itself as we move forward,” Biden began before being asked by Wallace to clarify.
“I support the Biden plan that I put forward,” he said vaguely. “The Biden plan, which is different than the Green New Deal.”
Biden also seemed to get tangled in his own rhetoric while avoiding a response on the Senate’s recently released Burisma report, which he emphatically insisted, without evidence, had been “discredited.”
The report implicated Biden’s son Hunter and other members of the Biden family in major ethical conflicts involving foreign nations while he was serving as vice president during the Obama administration.
Biden attempted to shift topics and attack Trump on the military, but it sounded instead as if he were confusing his two sons, Hunter and Beau.
At another point he tried to find common cause with at-home viewers by claiming Trump’s attacks on his family’s corrupt business deals were a distraction.
“We wanna talk about families and ethics? I don’t wanna do that,” Biden said.
As with everything in the highly charged political climate, the winner likely will be in the eye of the beholder.
Trump succeeded, as he did with Hillary Clinton four years ago, in scratching the itch that his outraged GOP constituency feels toward Biden’s ability to coast on softball questions and face little accountability.
At the same time, the low expectations placed on Biden that he might become disoriented and fully incoherent failed to come to fruition largely due to Trump’s domineering approach.
Although Biden did not receive the breaks at 30-minute intervals he had requested earlier in the day, he was rarely called upon to perform for an extended amount of time, and Trump’s eagerness to interrupt him likely reinforced the qualities that Biden’s own supporters were looking for him to demonstrate.
Nonetheless, he showed that he also could be just as feisty as Trump when it came to personal attacks, calling Trump a “clown” and questioning his intelligence.
“And a lot of people are gonna die unless he gets a lot smarter a lot quicker,” Biden said of the coronavirus response.
“Did you just use the word smart?” Trump said, tearing into more Biden’s false statements, in which he claimed to have graduated at the top of his class and started his college career at a historically black university.
“Don’t ever use the word smart with me,” Trump said.