What a mess.
The 2016 presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump now look like a genteel cocktail party compared to Tuesday's barroom brawl between Trump and Joe Biden.
Once dubbed the “chaos candidate” by Jeb Bush, Trump lived up to the description, steamrolling past repeated stop signs raised by moderator Chris Wallace and interrupting Biden. But rather than get rattled, the former vice president seemed to enjoy Trump’s tactics and also cut off the president at times, calling him a “clown” and worse. In earlier Democratic primary debates, Biden would sometimes appear out of steam and end his responses before his allotted time expired. Instead, Trump ended them for him.
If national and swing-state polling is correct (and that’s an important if), the president needs to pick up ground in the final five weeks of the race and close a massive gender gap. Constantly interrupting both Wallace and Biden is an odd strategy to win over undecided women.
If the president wanted to keep the coronavirus from being the central theme of the debate, he succeeded – but only by turning much of the 90-minute event into a mud-fest.
Trump’s strongest moment in a tough night for him overall was pivoting from a question about racism and turning it to law and order, asking Biden if any law-enforcement groups were endorsing him and getting no answer.
But Trump had several shaky moments, notably not disavowing white supremacist organizations, telling the notorious Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” – words that were quickly embraced by the group’s supporters on social media. The president also raised the specter of voter intimidation by encouraging his supporters to go to polling sites and act as observers to prevent alleged voter fraud from happening, something that unpleasantly echoed the era of Jim Crow.
Trump mostly succeeded in deflecting away serious questions raised by The New York Times in reports this week on his federal tax returns, with Trump claiming he paid “millions of dollars” in taxes for 2016 and 2017 when The Times says it was just $750 for each year.
And while Biden wouldn’t address a question about whether he would want to expand the size of the Supreme Court because of the current nomination fight, Trump said he was “counting” on the High Court to “look at the ballots.”
The president may have lowered the bar so much for Biden that he may have believed his own hyperbole about his opponent’s mental well-being. Without a prompter and any real stumbles, Biden more than held his own with Trump’s needling and Wallace’s questions. In the end, it was Trump who seemed to have more issues of acuity, calling Biden “Jim” three times throughout the debate.
Polling and studies show that presidential debates typically don’t have a significant impact on the race, and it’s hard to imagine an undecided voter now rushing to pull the lever for Trump after last night’s performance. The president may now need an October surprise because there were few surprises last night with his overheated performance on the debate stage. To paraphrase Tina Turner: What’s Hunter Biden got to do with it?