Reactions to tonight’s debate will likely be deeply polarized, as everything else is. There are a few things that are clear.
One, this was probably the worst presidential debate in American history. There was a ton of cross-talk and shouting down, there were many bald-faced lies and obvious evasions, a former vice president of the United States called the sitting president a “clown,” and the sitting president openly doubted whether the United States would hold a free and fair election. Chris Wallace completely lost control of the debate on many occasions, although it is difficult to see how any moderator could have saved this debate.
Two, there is some karmic retribution here for Joe Biden, although it may not hurt him. The story of the 2012 vice-presidential debate was Biden bullying Paul Ryan, talking constantly over his answers, and being cheered ecstatically by Democratic partisans for doing so. Tonight, Donald Trump turned that same weapon against Biden, interrupting him incessantly, throwing him off his train of thought on a few occasions (Biden fought back a few times, but Trump was the primary offender in that regard). Biden’s campaign will now act enormously, grievously offended by anyone acting like Joe Biden on a debate stage.
Three, Trump continues to be in bad shape in the polls, and has staked a lot on Biden’s advanced age, weeks away from public appearances, and his frequent verbal stumbles and confusion. Biden was by no means the old fast-talking Joe Biden, but he did not look senile, fragile, or lost. It may yet be that Trump is stronger than he appears in the polling, but if you were expecting tonight’s debate to move the needle in Trump’s direction, it seems very unlikely to do so.
If voters were looking for a strong, combative figure, they may like what they saw from Trump more than what they saw from Biden. But if they are looking for reassurance that four more years of Trump will be less wild than the first four, they did not get that. He went Full Trump.
Each side had its good and bad moments. Trump was far more authoritative in the discussions on vaccines (where Biden yet again floated mistrust of a vaccine if Trump is president) and, strangely, forest management. Biden responded with bald-faced false denials of every story about his son Hunter. Biden was touchy about suggestions that he’s not in charge, broadly declaring that “I am the Democratic Party!” and distancing himself from anti-cop sentiment and defunding the police, but he also flatly refused to answer questions about court-packing, and Wallace let him off the hook on answering questions about banning fracking. Trump actually did respond positively to Wallace’s request that he tell the Proud Boys and white supremacists to stand down and get off the streets, but refused to buy into the claim that they were anywhere near the source of street violence the Left is — while Biden retreated into denial on Antifa (claiming that it does not exist and is just an idea) and refused yet again to denounce anybody on the left for any responsibility for street violence. Biden tried to have it both ways on shutdowns, which gave Trump an opening to be anti-shutdowns and accuse Biden of wanting to shut down everything. That said, Trump — as one would have predicted months ago — had to embrace mask-wearing and Dr. Fauci for cover.
Easily the worst part of the debate for Trump was the end, in which his responses can only be called disgraceful. He ranted about fraud in ways that offered no reassurance whatsoever in the fairness of the election; while Biden likewise spent his answer talking about Trump having to concede, Trump went a good deal further in flatly refusing to tell his supporters to remain calm, and in suggesting that he might need the courts (even the Supreme Court) to step in to prevent voter fraud. It is difficult to see how this could do anything but hurt him and undermine faith in the system. He probably gave Democrats a talking point to use against confirming a new Supreme Court justice, which won’t stop the confirmation but could raise the political cost for some embattled senators of voting for Amy Coney Barrett.
Trump did not fall into the complacency or ennui that typically affect incumbents in their first debate, but he needed more from this debate, he didn’t get it, and that is probably bad enough.