There was a clear loser at last night’s debate: you.
Yes, you, the American voter.
Presidential debates are typically sober affairs, focused on policy and biography, legislation and plans for the future. This debate was a hot mess. On fire. In a garbage can.
While watching it unfold last night, I found myself simultaneously disgusted and depressed. Two septuagenarian men with little self-restraint, moderated by another septuagenarian man unable to impose any kind of decorum or even basic agreement over the rules.
In a strange twist, it was Joe Biden who leveled most of the insults. He called President Trump a “fool,” “liar,” “clown,” “racist,” “Putin’s puppy” and “the worst president America has ever had.” Oh, and he told him to “shut up” — words I suspect have never been uttered on a presidential debate stage.
Yet, he was far outdone by Mr. Trump. The president seemed unable to let any moment pass without a rude interruption, spewing falsehoods and deeply personal attacks. CNN called it an “avalanche of lying.” Our fact checkers had their own mountain to climb.
Mr. Trump refused to condemn white supremacists, instead seeming to almost encourage them. “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” he said, apparently addressing the far-right group, which has endorsed violence. (Members of the Proud Boys interpreted the remark as a tacit endorsement.)
He spread misinformation about voting by mail, pushing his false narrative that the process is rigged on the biggest stage yet. (Democrats are requesting mail ballots at far greater numbers in several key states, causing some Republican strategists to worry that Mr. Trump is scaring away his own supporters.)
And he mocked Mr. Biden for wearing a face mask, an argument that’s out of touch with scientific fact, public opinion and lived reality in most places.
None of this is surprising: Mr. Trump has made a career of disinformation and reality-show brawling. But his strategy for this debate, frankly, was mystifying from the start.
As it has for months, state and national polling shows Mr. Trump behind in this race. The debate was one of his few remaining opportunities to change those dynamics. While he dominated the night, it’s hard to see how this performance wins over many undecided voters, never mind bringing back parts of his 2016 coalition that have abandoned him.
At times, Mr. Trump was doing so much interrupting in hopes of throwing Mr. Biden off that it was hard to tell what point the president was trying to make.
When Mr. Biden refused to endorse some policies popular among progressives, like packing the Supreme Court and enacting the Green New Deal, the president claimed Mr. Biden had “just lost the left” — seeming to help make the former vice president’s case to moderate voters that he is not too liberal.
When Mr. Trump went after Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, who was discharged from the Navy Reserve in 2014 after testing positive for cocaine, he opened an opportunity for the Democratic nominee to deliver an impassioned direct-to-camera appeal both to military families and those struggling with addiction — a relatable problem in a country still struggling with an opioid crisis.
On the coronavirus pandemic, an area where he receives some of his lowest marks from voters, Mr. Trump failed to address his mismanagement of the crisis. Instead, he bet that voters would be more turned off by Mr. Biden saying he would shut things down again if advised by health officials. In multiple surveys, most voters have said they want the government to prioritize public health over keeping the economy open.
And I don’t think anyone ended the evening with any idea of what Mr. Trump would do with a second term, beyond attacking his opponents.
Perhaps the final segment of the debate was the most edifying. When asked by Chris Wallace, the moderator, whether he would commit to accepting the results of the election, Mr. Trump refused.
Instead, he insisted that the most likely outcome was a “fraudulent election.”
Those are not the words of a candidate who believes he’s headed to victory.
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