The two candidates squared off at Case Western University in Cleveland. Fox News Host Chris Wallace moderated the debate and framed the discussion around six topics: the Supreme Court, coronavirus, the economy, race and violence, Trump's taxes and transfer of power.
The debate was expected to be contentious and – to the extent that watching two white male Baby Boomers bicker with one another makes for compelling television – entertaining. Even with expectations of a fight, the debate was unlike any in recent American history.
Here are five key takeaways from Tuesday night’s presidential debate:
All of it was absolutely, unequivocally, a flaming hot mess
Most of the substance of Tuesday night’s debate is overshadowed by how chaotic and out of control the debate was. For the first five or so minutes, Trump seemed relatively subdued — but that didn’t last long.
Throughout the night, President Trump regularly interrupted, took personal shots at Biden and his son, Hunter, and talked over both Biden and moderator Wallace, who had to spend much of his time chastising the president for not respecting the rules of the debate. Biden responded angrily at a few points, calling Trump a “clown” and telling him to alternatively “shut up, man” and “keep yapping, man."
Immediately after the debate ended, CNN anchors described it as such:
Abby Philip: “It was a complete disaster on all fronts.“
Dana Bash “That was a s**t show.”
Jake Tapper: “That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a trainwreck."
Trump is willing to tear things down rather than lose
While the bickering between the candidates and the moderator was at times entertaining and at times simply sad, there were some truly disturbing moments coming from President Trump.
When asked to do so, the president refused to condemn white supremacist groups. But he went further, going out of his way to tell the white supremacist Proud Boys, by name, to “stand back and stand by.”
Affiliates of the group have reportedly taken to social media to celebrate Trump’s comments as a shout out and possibly a call to action.
When both candidates were asked if they would tell their supporters to remain calm while all the ballots were being counted, Trump instead called on his supporters to “go in to the polls and watch very carefully,” as he claimed that his followers had already done in places like Philadelphia. Vox described this proposal as “sound[ing] a lot like voter intimidation.”
Finally, even though it may have sounded less provocative, Trump’s comments sowing doubt on the practices of mask wearing and social distancing are likely to directly cost American lives in order to appease the COVID-skeptics among the president’s supporters.
Trump has a lousy record
The debate reminded viewers that America currently has over 200,000 people dead from COVID-19, millions fewer jobs than when Trump took office, and spikes in violence in both Democratic and Republican led cities.
Responding to the “dog whistle” about threats to the suburbs, Biden was able to land the point that “they’re dying in the suburbs” because of COVID-19 and environmental disasters. Concerning Black Americans, who were not addressed much during the debate despite race being one of the night’s topics, Joe Biden gave a stark statistic: “One in 1,000 African Americans has been killed because of the coronavirus. And If [Trump] doesn’t do something quickly, by the end of the year, one in 500 will have been killed.”
Trump’s explanations for his dismal record were to blame China and/or Democrats or to attempt to compare himself favorably to President Obama. This latter strategy backfired. When Trump claimed that his own coronavirus response was better than President Obama’s response to the swine flu, Biden was easily able to counter that the swine flu death toll was 14000 compared to 200,000 from COVID-19. Similarly, Trump’s arguments that the pre-COVID economy was the best in history and that Obama presided over the “slowest [economic] recovery in history” rang hollow against the factoid that more jobs were created in Obama’s last three years in office than in Trump’s first three years.
The brags of each of the candidates were telling of their respective records. “I’m the one that brought back football,” boasted Trump at one point, while Biden bragged “I’m the guy that brought back auto manufacturing.”
Biden was sharp, specific and generally presidential
Biden focused a lot of his answers on attacking President Trump’s record, integrity and temperament. But the former Vice President also gave specifics concerning healthcare, the economy and protecting the environment. Overall, he seemed more armed with plans and more willing to give straight answers to questions than President Trump.
The two areas where Biden was less forthcoming were his role in the 1994 “tough on crime” bill that helped create mass (Black) incarceration and potential plans to end the Senate filibuster or pack the Supreme Court. Asked about the latter in a CNN interview, Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, also dodged the question of Court-packing.
Many of Biden’s most effective moments came when he looked into the camera and spoke directly to the American people instead of Trump or Wallace.
“How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?” asked Vice President Biden at one point.
“[Trump] cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of [the] election,” said Biden as he urged Americans to vote by mail or in-person.
This fight is likely to go on long after election night
As pointed out by moderator Wallace and debated by the candidates, the record number of mail-in ballots means that it may take days or even weeks after Election Day for enough votes to be counted to definitely declare a winner of the vote. A dispute may even end up decided by the Supreme Court (as was the case in 2000), which would be particularly controversial given the fight over appointing a new justice this year.
Biden repeatedly called Trump a liar (which, to be fair, is accurate). Trump asserted that “this is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen” (which is very unlikely based on past history) and that “we might not know [the outcome of the vote] for months” due to mail-in ballots.
Many Americans on each side are thus being primed to not trust an outcome that doesn’t go their way. At best, November's election will leave one or the other side extremely dissatisfied with the results. At worst, a disputed election could lead to a constitutional crisis and even political violence. The mess of Tuesday night’s debate may therefore simply be a precursor to a much larger, and potentially very dangerous, fight over the election itself.