The Morning Jolt


The Debate Dumpster Fire

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first presidential campaign debate in Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Morry Gash/Reuters)

On the menu today: You know what we’re talking about today — that Godforsaken festival of incoherent crosstalk that was allegedly a presidential debate.

It Figures That a Dumpster Fire of a Year Like This Would Bring Us a ‘Debate’ Like This

Last night, I thought the first presidential debate of the 2020 cycle was bad. This morning, after a night’s sleep and further reflection, I think it was even worse than bad.

Assume, for a moment, that you think Joe Biden is well past his prime, that he’s not as quick on his feet or as sharp as he used to be, and that he wilts under pressure. Assume you believe that Biden’s “word salad” moments are indicators of senility or some other serious mental problem that will impede his ability to perform the duties of the presidency. Assume you believe that Biden’s campaign calls all of these early “lids” because they just don’t trust the candidate to perform and want to minimize the amount of time that their man is in front of the cameras.

If you believe all that and you’re President Trump, why on earth would you go into a debate and constantly try to talk over him and minimize the amount of time Biden speaks? If you believe Biden’s biggest liability is his mouth, why would you try to ensure the debate was 90 minutes of crosstalk?

Trump effectively called a lid on Biden early in the evening.

Then, if you think your opponent is going to try to duck the debates, why would you hand him an excuse to withdraw from the next two debates on a silver platter? (For what it’s worth, the Biden campaign says they will participate in all the remaining debates.)

The debate was bad for Trump, not really all that good for Biden, bad for moderator Chris Wallace, bad for the viewers at home, and bad for our system of government. The only people who had a good night were the far-right extremist Proud Boys.

In a year that has been a dumpster fire in so many ways, this debate fit in perfectly.

There is a defense to be made of this administration’s record, and a critique of Joe Biden and his allies in the Democratic Party. But the president’s hurricane of bluster and hectoring and heckling didn’t really make those arguments. Part of the problem is that President Trump either can’t remember particular facts and figures or can’t be bothered to try.

Which is more persuasive — something like this . . .

Since 2005, national greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 10 percent, and power sector emissions have fallen by 27 percent — even as our economy grew by 25 percent . . . From 2005 to 2018, total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 12 percent. In contrast, global energy-related emissions increased nearly 24% from 2005 to 2018 . . . U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell about 2 percent in 2019 . . . The 2019 drop was driven by a nearly 10 percent fall in emissions from the power sector, the biggest decline in decades.

Or what the president said last night: “We have now the lowest carbon — if you look at our numbers right now, we are doing phenomenally.”

The president wasn’t wrong, but because he doesn’t care about the details, he doesn’t cite the details, and it sounds like his usual boasting.

But don’t take it from me. You can argue that the Michael Beschlosses and Jon Meachams of the world were always going to detest a Trump debate performance, although I think their scathing post-debate denunciations of the president are their genuine opinions and not played up for effect. Listen to these folks who are, by no stretch of the imagination, pulling for Joe Biden:

The problems the president had tonight can potentially be fixed,” says Chris Christie, who is part of the Trump debate prep team, on ABC.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board: “The benign explanation for the President’s performance is that like other incumbents in their first debates he was overconfident and underprepared. A less benign view is that he grew flustered as the debate went on and lost his cool and whatever focus he had at the start. He was so scattershot with his answers that he rarely offered a sustained case for his own policies. When Mr. Biden said Mr. Trump had called veterans ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,’ Mr. Trump didn’t refute it but brought up Hunter Biden.”

The Boss: “The debate was pretty awful and I think the most important, and perhaps only, takeaway is that Biden didn’t buckle. He got flustered at times, did his share of interrupting, and was evasive on some key questions. But the point of the president going Full Trump, as Dan puts it below, was to make Biden crack and it didn’t happen. So Trump turned in a performance that a lot of viewers will find unpresidential without getting the upside. I doubt the debate will change the race much one way or the other, but Biden benefits every day the trajectory of the race stays the same.”

Brit Hume: “If the winner was the person who displayed the greatest force of personality, obviously, I think you would have to declare Donald Trump the winner. I’m not sure . . . that people at home would find that all that appealing. As for Vice President Biden, one of the big questions that hung over him tonight was whether the age and the forgetfulness and the confusion that has overtaken him at times would assert itself tonight. As far as I could see, it did not. I thought he held up very well. He was largely clear. At times, he was thrown off stride by the president’s interruptions, but who wouldn’t have been? So, I don’t know how many minds were changed. I don’t know if any minds were changed.”

Guy Benson: “Well, that was bad. Hard to organize thoughts after that chaos, but bottom line: Biden’s overall goal was to look like an acceptable alternative for voters who are exhausted by Trump & want a change. I suspect he succeeded. He’s already leading. So he won the night.”

Erick Erickson: “Undecided voters this late in the game typically break away from the incumbent for something different. I think both Trump and Biden probably did give them an excuse to break towards Biden if any of them bothered sticking around to the end. The upshot for the President is the debate performances of both men probably left most undecided voters hurling F-bombs, going to bed early, and deciding to stay home altogether. Maybe that helps the GOP.”

Michael Goodwin of the New York Post: “The bulk of the blame falls on Trump, who came with a clear plan and executed it flawlessly. Unfortunately, it was a very bad plan. From the get-go, the president was determined to rattle Joe Biden by being a persistent interrupter, rarely letting the former vice president finish two consecutive sentences. On occasion, his interjections were smart, but mostly, they made him look boorish . . . I was surprised at Trump’s approach. It was an example of all tactics and no strategy. He interrupted even when Biden was stumbling, which had the effect of letting Biden off the hook and out of the rhetorical weeds.”

John Podhoretz in the New York Post: “The simple fact of the matter is that Trump was incredibly unpleasant to watch, and Biden wasn’t. It was painful and sordid and cringe-inducing, and that was almost entirely Trump’s doing.

In fairness, some people thought the president won. Hugh Hewitt declared, “Donald Trump would play this debate on an endless loop if he could.

Dissecting the ‘Proud Boys’ Exchange

About 42 minutes into last night’s debate . . .

WALLACE: You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left-wing extremist groups. But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia group and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha, and as we’ve seen in Portland.

TRUMP: Sure, I’m willing to do that.

WALLACE: Are you prepared specifically to do it?

TRUMP: I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.

WALLACE: But what are you saying?

TRUMP: I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace!

WALLACE: Well, do it, sir.

BIDEN: Say it, do it, say it!

TRUMP: What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead! Who do you want me to condemn?

WALLACE: White supremacist and right-wing militia.

TRUMP: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing.

BIDEN: His own FBI Director said unlike white supremacist, Antifa is an idea not an organization-

TRUMP: Oh, you got to be kidding me!

BIDEN: -not a militia! That’s what his FBI Director said!

TRUMP: Well, then you know what, he’s wrong.

WALLACE: We’re done, sir. Moving onto the next . . .

First, notice Trump brought up the Proud Boys by name, not his rival or the moderator. (UPDATE: It didn’t show up in the debate transcript, but during the crosstalk, it sounds like Biden says “white Proud Boys” while Wallace is saying “White supremacist and right-wing militia,” so Biden brought them up first.)

Second, notice Trump’s bafflingly stubborn refusal to say, “I denounce White supremacists and right-wing militias.” It’s as if Trump thinks everyone won’t notice, or that the viewers at home will give him some sort of credit for not going along with other people’s requests or demands. Almost everyone else in politics would calculate that any value from not denouncing white supremacists, right-wing militias, or the Proud Boys is more than offset by the damage done among other voters who abhor those groups and who will be repelled by a president who won’t denounce them by name. For some reason, Trump seems to think he can lose all the soccer moms and make up the margin among the extremes.

Third, notice Trump defenders will insist “stand back and stand by” means “stand down.” But if Trump wanted to say “stand down,” he should have said “stand down!” Say what you mean and mean what you say. The common defense of Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment about Charlottesville is that he meant to refer to the non-extreme Confederate statue defenders, not the violent and anti-Semitic white nationalists, and his words just came out in an awkward, unclear way that sounded like he was referring to the white nationalists. Funny how Trump’s accidental word mix-ups consistently create this impression that he doesn’t want to alienate these groups.

Fourth, notice that Biden seems to think that because Antifa is an idea, not an organization, he’s not under any particular obligation to denounce it.

ADDENDUM: Jay Cost with an astute and trenchant observation: “Cable news has profited off turning politics into a spectacle. And now they have the temerity to bemoan it?


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