By Jonathon Van Maren
We were all expecting fireworks, but I’m not sure anyone expected anything that bad. I don’t even have a framework for determining who won and who lost. Trump came out of the gate determined to use all his oppo research in the first fifteen minutes, shoe-horning attacks into totally unrelated topics. As I suspected, the Trump team also lowered expectations far too much for Biden—whatever you thought of his performance, he certainly didn’t come off as a doddering and half-dead candidate with dementia. They talked over each other nonstop, Trump could not stop interrupting (and I do mean “could not”—I really don’t think he could help himself), and Biden told him to “shut up” and referred to the president as a “clown.” And again, I have no idea if any of that makes any difference for anyone.
Chris Wallace was under a lot of fire for his performance as moderator, but his job was like herding cats and shoveling smoke. Wallace got drawn into the debate a few times himself, but halfway through I suspect he was as bewildered as the rest of us. There’ll probably be a whole chapter in his memoirs on this trainwreck. Trump also fell into a few obvious traps—his refusal to just simply come out and say he’ll accept the election results and condemn white supremacists, regardless of the broader point he was trying to make, was politically suicidal. There is something about Trump’s character that makes him balk when he is asked to say something or denounce something, and it ends up hurting him badly. You can blame the media for how the questions are framed—and I see some already are—but Trump has no-one but himself to blame for the fallout. The media double standard is already well-known, and should be taken into account ahead of time.
In all the sound and fury signifying nothing, Joe Biden did reveal a few things. He came out and admitted that his concern with Amy Coney Barrett was that she might overturn Roe v. Wade, despite his apparently Catholic credentials. He was fastidiously polite about Barrett herself, revealing that the Democrats are aware of how badly the Kavanaugh hearings backfired on them (The Hill quoted several as saying that they believe they lost a few senate seats over Kavanaugh.) Abortion, of course, is a Democrat priority. Trump asked Biden if he would pack the court, and Biden refused to answer. Kamala Harris refused to answer the same question again today. They’re refusing to answer because the Democrats will, in all likelihood, try to pack the court if they take the White House and the Senate. Politicians who campaign on funding abortions throughout all nine months of pregnancy are not going to flinch when it comes to butchering norms.
A lot was ostensibly discussed, but it was virtually impossible to tell if any solid blows were landed, and the entire thing was just embarrassing. It might have been enjoyable political theatre if it wasn’t real life. Trump doesn’t have the discipline to do what he needed to do, and his attacks were often oddly placed. I know that most conservatives will disagree with me on this, but I don’t care for the attacks on Hunter Biden’s drug problems. Hunter may be all sorts of things, but I would defend any of my family members regardless of their personal failings, as well. The cash payouts from foreign sources are fair game, I guess, but his drug struggles etc. should not be, in my opinion. Biden failed totally on the Antifa question—despite mountains of evidence that they are organized in chapters and plan out their rioting, he claimed that they were an “idea” rather than an organization. But that will get totally forgotten because of Trump’s subsequent failure to condemn the Proud Boys. Whatever you think of the Proud Boys, refusing to back the FBI’s assessment of them was, again, politically stupid.
To reiterate, I have no idea who actually won because this debate was unprecedented. I don’t think the debate hurt Biden, since he showed up and avoided any big stumbles (unless telling the president to “shut up, man” was a stumble), and he’s already ahead in the polls, anyway. If the current data is accurate, Trump needed a good night. From my perspective, he didn’t get it. Early polling this morning shows that most viewers feel the same way (42% of viewers said it made them think less of him). Then again, this is the same man who did this type of thing straight through 2016 and he ended up president, so who knows? Maybe I’m wrong again.