The first debate of this fall’s U.S. presidential election achieved the rare feat of uniting the pundits in a notoriously divided country.
They found unity in their dismay.
The point of agreement was that this was a sad spectacle for what’s sometimes described as the world’s oldest democracy.
The 90-minute affair concluded with a surreal exchange about whether the United States is in fact about to have a clean election.
In this debate, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, complained about mailed ballots and said: “It’s a rigged election.”
Several minutes earlier, the moderator had asked him to condemn white supremacists and militia-like groups, and the president pushed back.
WATCH | ‘Stand back and stand by,’ Trump says to Proud Boys group:
“What do you want to call them? Give me a name,” Trump responded, and when his opponent Joe Biden mentioned the Proud Boys group, the president said something that triggered a celebratory reaction in far-right online circles.
“Proud Boys — stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Trump’s response drew sharp rebukes from viewers and pundits, including this from political commentator Van Jones:
Only three things happened tonight:<br><br>1. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/DonaldTrump?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#DonaldTrump</a> refused to condemn white supremacy.<br>2. The <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/POTUS?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#POTUS</a> refused to condemn white supremacy.<br>3. The <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/CommanderInChief?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#CommanderInChief</a> REFUSED to condemn white supremacy on the GLOBAL STAGE.<br><br>NOW LOOK AT WHAT IS HAPPENING ONLINE.<br>THIS IS NOT OKAY. <a href=”https://t.co/OhANFUYqNS”>pic.twitter.com/OhANFUYqNS</a>
It was a far cry from the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
In that one, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon spoke in complex and complete sentences; avoided interrupting each other; and began with an exchange on the need to become a fairer and more racially equal country that shines its example unto the free world.
Trump game plan: Constant attack
Trump clearly entered this one with a more prosaic game plan: maul away at Biden so consistently, so aggressively, that he’d struggle to complete a point.
The president dominated the stage in the first half of the debate, repeatedly interrupting and knocking the former vice-president off-kilter.
WATCH | Recap of the first U.S. presidential debate:
A number of Trump’s interjections comprised falsehoods.
In the very first segment, Biden warned that an upcoming Supreme Court case over the so-called Obamacare health law could harm insurance coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions and he mentioned that 100 million people have such conditions.
Debate-watchers say Biden won first debate, but most felt “annoyed” – CBS News poll <a href=”https://t.co/4hlkiDxaHt”>https://t.co/4hlkiDxaHt</a>
Trump interrupted, for the first of many times, to deny that 100 million people have pre-existing conditions.
His own Department of Health and Human Services says it’s actually somewhere between 50 million and 129 million people, though far fewer actually make use of one of the Obamacare plans.
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The former VP initially struggled to get his points across. The president lobbed comments at him — like, “Forty-seven years [in politics], you’ve done nothing” — that broke his flow.
At the moment where Biden began to lace into the president over a New York Times report that he paid little or no income tax some years, and started to make a broader point about his own plan to raise taxes on companies and the rich, Biden’s initial attempt was cut off; his second was a bit muddled.
‘Shut up, man’
The tide turned somewhat.
It began with exasperated insults from Biden like: “You’re the worst president America has ever had. Come on,” and, “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown,” and, “Everyone knows he’s a liar,” and, in a distant cry from the rhetorical style of past televised debates, Biden told Trump, “Will you shut up, man?”
The moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, then called Trump to task. He told the president to stop speaking out of turn.
“I’m appealing to you, sir,” Wallace said. When Trump asked whether he’d issue the same order to Biden, Wallace replied: “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting.”
Eventually Biden settled into his own game plan — to look at the camera, speak directly to the American people and, in this difficult year, exude empathy.
WATCH | ‘Will you shut up, man?’
“Under this president we’ve become weaker. Sicker. Poorer. More divided. And more violent,” Biden said.
He waffled when Trump asked about a highly controversial idea gaining ground on the left: expanding the Supreme Court as punishment for the latest Republican nomination.
More than once, Trump set out to damage Biden’s left flank.
Trump raised policies embraced by the farther-left elements of the Democratic Party, like the Green New Deal and defunding the police.
Biden replied each time that these were not his policies. The Democratic nominee stressed that he — not socialists — spoke for the Democratic Party.
“The fact of the matter is I beat Bernie Sanders,” Biden said. “I beat him [by] a whole hell of a lot.”
Trump’s response to that was striking.
Trump tries damaging rival on his left
The president, at two moments in the debate, offered something that sounded like political punditry.
Trump chimed in, “He just lost the left. You just lost the left.”
Trump repeated a similar comment later about Biden losing left-wing votes, during an exchange about the Green New Deal.
It was self-serving punditry, to be sure.
But it was also revealing, as it highlighted one way Trump can still win this race: depressed turnout on the left.
All across America, people are ready to take a shower.
Trump has had trouble cracking the mid-40s in national polls and in swing-state polls. One way to win, if he doesn’t grow, is to take Biden down a peg.
Meaning, if enough progressives vote Green or stay home, Trump has a better chance.
Whether this debate did anything to help the president is far from certain.
Trump entered Tuesday night deemed the underdog, and it’ll become clearer within a few days whether he gained a critical boost.
Initial reactions give Biden edge
According to the first post-debate polls by CBS and CNN, Biden was viewed as the winner. The CBS poll said, however, that most people were annoyed by the debate. Undecided voters in a focus group organized by Republican operative Frank Luntz were also uninspired. The first five post-debate panellists commenting on Fox News were unconvinced this was a game-changer.
These early debate reactions are to be handled with caution.
In 2012, and in 2016, the first post-debate polls hailed Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton as the winners; neither became president.
One broad point of consensus however, on both the left- and right-leaning networks, was that the debate had one big loser.
“Maybe America lost,” was the immediate post-debate reaction from Fox News’ Bret Baier.
Over on MSNBC, veteran Democratic strategist James Carville said: “It was not a very good night for American democracy at all.”