I decided to take a few days to consider my analysis of the first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. It seemed to me that the political caldron was just too hot to make an objective and intelligent analysis. I am glad I did.
There is no doubt that Trump entered the stage cruising for a fight. He came on hot, as they say. Biden was a bit more laid back, but not above using the same tactics – interruptions and insults – as Trump. The only objective thing that can be said is that Trump interrupted more often – resulting in a rebuke from Moderator Chris Wallace. In terms of ad hominem insults, it was essentially a tie – although Biden’s seemed to be less noticed because of the winnowing attack from Trump.
So, what about the results?
Biden looked weak. Even some of his usual supporters in the media said as much. Many of his retorts were in the “so’s your old man” category. His most powerful moments came when he looked in the camera and turned on the pre-rehearsed message. These eyes-in-the-camera commercial-like diversions came across as a bit too rehearsed, however.
If his goal were to establish that he would be a great – or even a good – President, he fell short of the mark. He did not have a lot of substance to offer.
As he has done in so many political commercials, Biden attempted to gain sympathy by referring to the tragic death of his son, Beau. He parried the question of his more troubled and controversial son, Hunter, by simply admitting that the boy once had a Drug problem and beat it. There was nothing to be said about the millions and billions of dollars funneled to Hunter and his closely-held company by corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs, Chinese government-run enterprises and others close to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin – money that does not seem to have been legitimately earned based on Hunter’s resume and personal history.
Biden also repeatedly referred to notes on the podium launching into his canned rehearsed responses. (I thought they were not supposed to have notes. But Biden’s reliance on prepared material was confirmed after the debate when you could see a young aide remove them from Biden’s podium.)
Trump was able to get Biden wobbling like a Weeble on a number of issues. Having once declared his support for the radical left’s Green New Deal – that was introduced in the Senate by his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, and proposed by his appointed environment advisor Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Biden alleged that he has not endorsed that bit of left-wing legislation.
Biden also suggested that he did not have a deal with his former competitor Senator Bernie Sanders. That could be very upsetting to Sanders and the Bernie Boys. Trump even responded to Biden with, “You just lost the left.”
Biden ducked and dodged when Moderator Chris Wallace asked Biden if he would support increasing the size of the Supreme Court if Republicans succeeded in seating Amy Coney Barrett on the high court. Biden not only flat-out refused to answer the question, but he also said that he was not going to provide a “sound bite.” That strongly suggests that he is open to that outrageous and extremely dangerous idea – and that he knows his answer would not sit well with the American people.
Despite his relatively poor performance, Biden will be determined to be the winner largely because he cleared an exceptionally low bar that had been ironically set for him by Trump & Co. Biden did not have any serious senior moments. Oh, he sputtered a few times and his responses lacked wit and impact, but no gaffe that was noteworthy.
There was also another reason Biden may have looked relatively good. Trump.
Trump not only came out hot, he came out too hot. His interruptions and his bluster worked against him. He did not develop his points effectively – and never allowed them to reach the audience. Repeatedly Trump trumped his own message.
One example was when they got into the “I am smarter than you” tit for tat. Trump questioned Biden’s smartness by pointing out that he did not even know he never attended the Black Delaware College. It could have been a good educational zing, but without explanation, I suspect virtually no one heard it or even knew to what Trump was referring.
FYI … Biden recently stated that he started college at Delaware. He never attended, and the school had to issue a statement to that effect. It may have been one of those senior moments when an older person thinks something happened that did not. I can think of no other explanation for such an egregious error. I do not think it was an intentional lie, like when Senator Richard Blumenthal listed combat in Vietnam on his resume. That was a strategic lie, like when Biden said had a full scholarship, was top of his law school class and recognized as the outstanding political science student. All total fabrications.
In a recent commentary, I gave Trump an “F” in Public Communication 101. He did not improve his grade during the debate. As it is his habit, Trump missed every opportunity to make a salient argument in defense of his administration, his policies and especially his successes.
As a candidate with a credibility problem, Trump needs to be more precise and more definitive in presenting his points. He needs more detail. This is not an arena in which browbeating is effective.
Trump was best when he clearly articulated the difference between asking for a ballot and sending them to all registered voters. He could have been more persuasive with a bit more detail, but it was a good intelligible explanation. The idea that there will be millions of unrequested ballots floating in space should scare anyone devoted to honest elections.
His propensity for imprecise language – that can be easily spun – was evident in his response to the question about white supremacy. He did start his response to the question as to whether he condemns White supremacy by saying “sure” – clearly meaning that he does condemn it. But he trampled all over that answer by pivoting to left wing violence. He needed to do that more artfully.
Ironically, the record is filled with examples of Trump condemning white supremacy, but they are censored by the anti-Trump media. Even his out-of-context statement about good people on both sides of Charlottesville is a deception perpetrated by the mass media. Biden repeated the intentionally misleading remark attributed to Trump.
For the record, what Trump said in context was:
“Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. If you look at both sides — I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it.”
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Trump further refined his remarks to the reporter (highlight added).
“I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists — because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”
Throughout the interview, it was clear that Trump’s reference to both sides was to the peaceful people who assembled with opposite views on the issue of statues – good people with different viewpoints.
But the debate again showed Trump’s inability to respond effectively point-by-point. They say that Trump does not need to prepare for these debates because he knows the issues. That may be true, but because of his pugnacious personality, Trump does not know HOW to debate – and that is THE issue now.
Trump is going to have to be a lot better in the next debates when he will have a more biased moderator.
Having negotiated many major political debates over the years, I am at a loss to explain how both sides and the Presidential Debate Commission could have agreed upon a format that virtually assured chaos. Wallace did the best he could with what was handed to him – although I thought the questions he drafted left a lot to be desired. It is not that they were terribly biased. It was just that they were not very informative. To much insider politics – with a gotcha underpinning — and too little elicitation of issues.
The next debate is likely to be better. How could it be otherwise?
So, there ‘tis.