The reviews are in:
Dana Bash on CNN:
Bash put it bluntly: “that was a shit show.”
She noted that because they’re on cable TV, they’re permitted to use such crude language, which she also apologized for.
“But that is really the phrase I’m getting from people on both sides of the aisle on text and the only phrase I can think of to describe it.”
Bash’s CNN colleagues Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer and Abby Philip echoed similar sentiments.
Tapper called the debate “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” Philip said it was “a complete disaster.”
Blitzer agreed that it was “the most chaotic presidential debate” he had ever seen, adding that the first debate between Trump and Biden raises “a lot of questions about the future of a presidential debate between these two candidates.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised, by the way, if this is the last presidential debate between the president of the United States and the former vice president of the United States,” Blitzer said. “But we shall see, fairly soon.”
Brit Hume of Fox News:
Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume said Trump “was like a bucking bronco the entire time. I don’t know how the people at home would find that appealing.”
As for Biden — who Hume earlier in the evening repeatedly said was “senile” — he “came across as competent” during the debate.
I worried what this momentous night would bring. In the event I think it was somewhere between bad and disastrous for President Trump.
The most important fact about this debate is that going into it President Trump was clearly behind. He needed to shift the dynamic of the race, force some major error, introduce some new factor. That didn’t happen. I saw nothing tonight that seems at all likely to improve things for President Trump. Nothing.
Biden did fine. Not great. But fine. I’d say he had a B performance with some B+ or even A- minus moments. But for him that’s fine. He’s ahead. He’s not running as best debater. He’s not running as most dynamic figure. He’s not competing for most unstable affect. He’s running as the guy who will end the nightmare. If that’s the goal he turned in just the right performance.
To the extent there was any strategy to Trump’s ranting – and I think it was mainly instinctual – it was to create chaos in the hope that it would throw Biden off his stride and prompt some scattered or damaging moment. That didn’t happen. It was really just Trump yelling. That was the strategy his surrogates previewed. And if he had triggered some embarrassing flub perhaps it would have been a winning strategy. Everybody knows Trump’s a bully and a loudmouth. That’s not new information. But maybe it would be worth it if he forced some major error from Biden. He didn’t. And so what we had was Trump ranting, visibly angry, launching off on numerous digressions, lying. It was ugly, unhinged and exhausting – a good summary of Trump’s entire presidency.
One thing that struck me was that the few times when Biden was able to speak uninterrupted for 30 or 60 seconds he was actually devastating against Trump. I was thinking, Trump’s right to keep interrupting. When Biden gets to talk it’s terrible for Trump.
Biden spent a lot of time simply laughing at Trump. That made for a good visual and it also clearly enraged the President. That spurred Trump to be even more self-injuring. It made him more spluttering. Donald Trump is the President of the United States. And yet half the time during this spectacle he looked like the loudmouth yelling taunts and insults outside a party he’s pissed he wasn’t invited to.
He looked weak and angry.
There are definitely people who think Biden didn’t seem strong enough reacting to or containing Trump’s tirades. Basically I don’t think this is right. Clearly Biden isn’t really quite able to keep up with Trump’s antics. I don’t say that because of age. It’s just characterologically beyond him, for better or worse. But Biden’s not running for arguer. He held his own and simply showed himself to be a very different kind of person, a very different kind of potential President. That’s a win for him.
Trump talked a lot more. In a sense he did “dominate” the debate. But most of it was self-injuring.
I think there’s a decent chance this performance will be quite damaging for Trump. But who knows? Other outrages have rolled over him like water over a duck’s back. What I’m very confident of is that Trump needed to change things in his favor. He failed to do that. Since he’s behind, and significantly behind, that is a huge missed opportunity and a big loss.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker:
“Did you see what’s going on?” President Trump asked toward the end of the first Presidential debate, on Tuesday night. The moderator, Fox News’s Chris Wallace, had asked whether Trump would insure a smooth Presidential transition, should he lose. “Take a look at West Virginia. Mailmen selling the ballots,” Trump said. (In fact, a mail carrier from Dry Fork, West Virginia, pleaded guilty in July to altering eight primary ballot request forms—which some in the conservative media have described as a portent of a stolen election.) “They’re being sold. They’re being dumped in rivers. This is a horrible thing for our country. This is not going to end well.”
In recent weeks, President Trump’s reëlection campaign has sometimes slipped between a normal mode, in which he makes explicit appeals for the votes of suburban women and tries to pin left-wing labels on Joe Biden, and an abnormal one, in which he amplifies right-wing talking points and speaks suspiciously about the integrity of the election. Even so, it was new to see the pattern on a Presidential debate stage. Wallace asked whether the candidates would encourage their supporters to stay calm while the ballots were counted. A simple ask. Biden agreed. Trump focussed instead on his campaign’s effort to get his supporters to monitor elections in big cities and on a Pennsylvania rule that might stand in the way of that effort. He said, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem in Philadelphia; they went in to watch. They are what you call poll watchers—a very nice, very safe thing. They were thrown out; they weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things. I am urging my people—I hope it’s going to be a fair election. If it’s a fair election, I am a hundred per cent on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”
Wallace kept trying to get the President to say that he would play by the normal rules, but each exchange only encouraged Trump to signal that he wouldn’t. A few minutes earlier, Wallace had asked the President about right-wing militia groups. Trump responded, “What do you want me to call them?” The Proud Boys, Biden said, from the other podium, naming a prominent far-right group. Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” Biden flashed a big grin, which covered some of the chill of the moment: Had Trump meant to condemn the right-wing militias or encourage them? The Proud Boys’ chairman, Enrique Tarrio, wrote online, “Standing by sir.”
There was quite an arc to the debate, which was held on a makeshift stage at the Cleveland Clinic. It started as a farce, with Trump so relentlessly interrupting Biden that Wallace struggled to keep the early exchanges coherent. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden asked, exasperated, when Trump kept talking over him. Biden tied himself in knots in the first few minutes, struggling to make the case that the President shouldn’t get to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election and to clearly explain the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and the threat Trump poses to it. The speculation had been that at least eighty million people might watch the debate—which is a lot of eyes to simultaneously roll. Debates are meant to present contrasts, but at the outset this one delivered only characters: the challenger serious and meandering; the incumbent more concise, funnier, and saying plainly false and ridiculous things.
The fact-checkers tallied plenty of Trump lies, about the Obama Administration’s Clean Energy Standard, about the extent of ballot fraud in New Jersey, about proper forest management. Twenty-five minutes in, just after Trump had promised that a coronavirus vaccine will arrive within weeks, Biden asked, “Do you believe for a moment what he’s telling you, in light of all the lies he’s told you about the whole issue relating to COVID?” Biden was looking directly at the camera; Trump was looking sideways, at Biden. Throughout the night, Trump seemed to be focussed on his opponent first and the audience only abstractly. He did not seem to notice that his untrustworthiness was the main theme Biden had been pressing, inelegantly but effectively, to persuade voters away from Trump, in the long summer defined by the pandemic. The President didn’t hear the challenge, only a pause. He rushed to fill it, with an attack he’d signalled in his rallies. “Did you use the word ‘smart’?” Trump asked Biden. The Democrat had, though only in passing, while talking mainly about mass death. “So you said you went to Delaware State, but you forgot the name of your college.” (This was likely inscrutable to most of the audience: Biden, who attended the University of Delaware, has never said that he attended Delaware State, a historically Black college, though this has become a right-wing talking point.) Trump went on, “He graduated, either lowest or almost the lowest in his class. Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me.”
Trump’s trouble isn’t debating, exactly. It’s the same political problem he’s had since the spring, when the pandemic turned a modest Biden lead into a large one. Trump has tried to answer the material suffering of people with culture-war posturing, in a language mostly familiar to conservative political obsessives. In the decisive second phase of the debate tonight, the one centered on COVID, Biden kept the focus on people. “How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died, to COVID?” Biden asked. “How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad, and you couldn’t even speak to them—the nurse had to hold the phone up so you could, in fact, say goodbye?” One difference between the Trump of 2016 and the current version is that, in his campaign against Hillary Clinton, he talked about people (mostly exaggerated versions of people who’d been the victims of immigrant violence or betrayed by élites, but people still), and now he talks in the abstract nouns of news chyrons. Presidents lose touch. Trump trails in the polls by seven or eight points, and he spent the evening speaking to his base. The debate went to Biden on points.
But that wasn’t the texture of the evening, or the story. The texture was chaos—the overlapping non-responsiveness, visible even in those few moments when the candidates arrived at a clear point of contrast, as they did in an exchange over the coronavirus lockdowns.
“People want their places to be open,” Trump said.
“People want to be safe,” Biden said.
For a moment, the contrast between the two men was correctly set, gemlike, just like that. Wallace, for the first time all night, might have allowed himself a sense of triumph. It didn’t last a full second. Trump’s voice, throaty and random as ever, blundered on, “I’m the one that brought back football.” And then, defiantly, “It was me, and I’m very happy to do it.”
There is a comic version of Trump’s four-year term that ends on a note just like that. But the story of the evening was that the same factors that have Trump behind in the polls—his sequestration in an imagined culture war, during a real pandemic—also raise the likelihood of a tragic, violent version of the end to this election season, about five weeks from now. The mundane aspects of the campaign keep intersecting with the ominous, surreal ones. Here’s hoping that we can look back on this debate and remember only the ridiculousness.
Rob Reiner on Twitter:
We just won the election.
I don’t know if Mr. Reiner is right; counting chickens and all that, but it certainly did define it for the rest of the run. I’d be willing to bet that there won’t be any more presidential debates in this cycle.