In a debate that was the political equivalent of a food fight, the winner is the man who emerged least covered in slop.
On Tuesday night, that man was Joe Biden – if only because his main goal was to prove to Americans that he could hold up under pressure, that he had not lost a step due to his advancing age. He had to show he could take a pie to the face, metaphorically speaking, and keep his cool.
He mostly met that standard, although it was at least in part because Donald Trump, by his constant hectoring and interruptions, seldom gave the former vice-president a chance to say something truly damaging to his own cause.
Twitter Trump – the unconventional, bombastic, insulting and rumour-mongering aspect of this president – was on full display throughout the hour and a half event. Unfortunately for the president, many Americans, even his own supporters, find his social media persona one of his more unattractive attributes.
Trump needed this debate to shake up a race that is tilting against him – and has been remarkably stable, through economic, health and social adversity.
Nothing about this free-for-all seems likely to alter the dynamics of this contest or change the minds of the one in 10 American voters who say they are still undecided (although perhaps they’ll resolve never to watch another one of these).
“Will you shut up, man?”
It was clear very early on what kind of “debate” this would be. Donald Trump’s objective was to rattle Joe Biden – and he planned to do it by constantly interrupting the former vice-president.
That’s made for a series of chaotic exchanges, which included Trump questioning Biden’s intelligence and Biden calling Trump a clown, shushing him and asking, indignantly, “Will you shut up, man?”
Time and time again, Trump would snipe at Biden, leaving the Democrat laughing and shaking his head.
As moderator Chris Wallace announced that the coronavirus was the next topic and that both candidates would have two-and-a-half uninterrupted minutes to answer, Biden quipped: “Good luck with that.”
Suddenly, moderating this prestigious primetime event must have felt like the worst job in America.
Biden’s deliberate camera move
Speaking of the coronavirus, this was always going to be difficult terrain for the president – and it came up early in the debate.. He had to defend a response that has resulted in more than 200,000 American deaths. He did so by saying the steps he’s taken prevented more deaths from taking place and suggesting Biden would have made things worse.
Biden’s reply was to talk directly at the camera, asking the viewers if they could believe Trump (polls indicate a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic).
In one telling exchange, Trump boasted about the size of his campaign rallies, held outside because that’s what the “experts” – with emphasis on that word – suggest. He then said Biden held smaller rallies because he couldn’t attract larger crowds.
It represents a fundamental difference in the way the two candidates view the pandemic and whether the situation is getting better – or worse.
Trump touts his record of getting things done
If there’s a message the Trump campaign wants Americans to take away from this debate – a clip that was tweeted out from the president’s account even as the debate was ongoing – it’s that Joe Biden had almost half a century in public office to solve the problems facing the country, and those problems are still around.
“In 47 months, I’ve done more than you’ve done in 47 years,” Trump told the vice-president.
Biden’s response came later in the debate.
“Under this president, we’ve become weaker, sicker, poorer and more divided,” he said.
Biden fails to hurt Trump on his ‘hidden taxes’
When the New York Times story about Trump’s taxes broke on Sunday night, it was viewed as a bombshell – the public was finally getting a look at information the president had, in a break with tradition, withheld for years.
When the topic came up in the debate, Donald Trump offered a similar defence to the one he provided in 2016 – that he had paid plenty of taxes and his ability to avoid a larger tax bill was simply his taking advantage of the law.
Biden, for his part, tried to turn the topic into a condemnation of Republican-passed tax reform. While he noted that Trump paid less in federal taxes than schoolteachers, that message – which could have been a powerful attack – got buried in ensuing scuffle with the president.
If Trump’s tax returns have any legs as an issue in this campaign, it won’t be because of this debate.
‘I’m the Democratic Party, not Bernie’
One of Trump’s goals during this debate – and throughout the whole campaign – is to paint Biden as beholden to the left wing of his party. Biden, in his very first exchange with the president, outlined his defence.
The opening topic for tonight’s debate was the Supreme Court, but Biden quickly tried to turn the discussion to the Affordable Care Act – which is at risk because of a pending case before the high court.
Trump tried to accuse Biden of supporting “socialised medicine” and pushing to do away with private insurance, prompting the Democrat say that wasn’t in his plan – and he’s the Democratic nominee.
“I am the Democratic Party right now,” he said. “The platform of the Democratic Party is what I approved.”
“This will not end well”
The closing segment of the debate was on election security and concerns – presented by both the left and the right – that the election will not be free and fair.
When it came to the details of the discussion, if you can call it that, they mostly revolved around Trump sharing a series of anecdotes that he says demonstrated that mail-in voting, which millions of Americans will rely on this year, is fraught with corruption and incompetence.
“This will not end well,” Trump said at one point – a sentiment that many Americans on both sides of the political aisle will agree with, albeit for different reason.
Biden, for his part, tried to take the high ground. He called for all the ballots to be counted and promised to respect the results of the election once a winner has been decided. It seemed he had a few more points to make in conclusion, but Trump interrupted him again and then Wallace announced the debate was over.
It was a sudden end to a chaotic evening that can hardly be called a debate in any traditional sense of the word. These events rarely swing an election one way or another, and this one was such a muddled mess it seems unlikely many minds were changed.