The First Presidential Debate: Carnage, Zero Substance and a Failed Strategy

Seldom has a first presidential debate been anticipated so eagerly. One expected a tempestuous night, but what the American people witnessed was a final goodbye to decorum and decency, and a hello to no-holds bared reality TV for the presidency of the United States.

Carnage From the Outset

This did not exactly come as a surprise. Joe Biden compared the president to Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister Goebbels prior to the debate while Trump demanded a drug test for Biden.

Moreover, any hope that moderator Chris Wallace could somehow steady the ship went overboard quickly. It left the American people with almost zero substance but arguably the worst presidential debate to date — and one for which the main takeaways are not based on policies but purely the participants.

Standard Talking-Points, no Substance

The debate’s start was supposed to focus on Trump’s approach to filling the Supreme Court’s vacant position, but the topic changed swiftly towards the coronavirus pandemic. Trump claimed that instead of more than 200,000 corona deaths, there would be two million victims if Biden were president.

Biden, in turn, accused Trump of “having no plan.” He called on the president to get out of his “bunker” and his golf course and save lives. Trump countered that China was to blame for the virus. If Biden had been listened to, the United States would have been “wide open” according to Trump. However, Trump had “closed” the country and did a “great job” dealing with the pandemic.

During these exchanges, the president interrupted Biden repeatedly and called him, among other things, “a disaster.” Biden accused Trump of having been entirely irresponsible, lying and “panicking” in the face of the pandemic, while also telling him to “shut up, man” and calling him “a clown.”

The Debate’s Rapid Digressions

Border closings, supporters, willingness to vaccinate, social distancing, masks — the debate jumped from one to the other controversial topic of the corona crisis accompanied by several more interruptions by the president, to Wallace’s dismay.

Another central point of contention related to medical care in the United States. Trump accused Biden of seeking socialist health insurance for his Democratic Party. Regarding the health care introduced by former President Barack Obama, Trump said: “Obamacare is a disaster, it is too expensive.” Biden countered the debate with a frontal attack against Trump, accusing him of lies and saying that Trump is of no help to the many people who depend on affordable health care. Most importantly, however, he distanced himself from Bernie Sanders’ health care ideas.

Racial Topics

Biden also called Trump a racist, who attempted to “generate racist hatred, racist division” via continuous dog-whistle politics. Trump responded by slamming Biden for his 1994 crime bill, treating the black community worse than anyone else, and calling them “super-predators.” Biden called for children of whatever skin color to be given comprehensive equal opportunities and assured the audience that “we can overcome racism in America.”

One of the most critical moments came towards the end of the debate when Chris Wallace asked Trump to condemn white supremacists. The president did not express a commitment towards doing this.

Despite the variety of topics, substance on policy or coherent exchanges of thoughts were nonexistent throughout the debate. And yet, a few crucial points could play a significant role until November 3, including the president’s strategic approach.

Key Takeaways

Chris Wallace had a difficult night. Wallace, one of the US’ premier journalists, too often appeared overpowered by Trump, who simply attempted to steamroll everyone, including Wallace. At times both appeared to be debating each other.

Biden Dismantled Accusations of Socialism

While the socialist attacks the Trump team had worked out for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren never stuck on Biden, to begin with, his decisive answers today will have even surprised the president. Trump attempted to equate Biden repeatedly with the Democrat’s hard left.

However, tonight Biden made clear that he was the Democratic Party, that he had beaten Bernie Sanders, that he is in favor of “Law and Order,” that he does not seek to defund the police, and that he does not support the Green New Deal.

The New Standard?

What was more shocking than the lack of policies discussed was the lack of decorum displayed by both participants. Since the 2016 debates, one knew about Trump’s proclivity for turning presidential debates into a reality TV show. He did not disappoint this time, either.

His continuous interruptions and quasi-side debates with Wallace, paired with plenty of conspiracy theories (e.g., mail-in vote fraud, Hunter Biden), were hard to watch. However, the challenger calling the president a clown and telling him to “shut up” was equally a new all-time low for the format.

With these precedents, future presidential debates will likely be anything but presidential. And while 2016 ruined the format, it was buried alive tonight.

The Trump Campaign’s Miscalculation

Biden confirmed what one knew all along: he is not a great candidate. One can easily make the case he would have lost a debate against the majority of the previous 10 Republican nominees. But Biden did not need to be great nor Shakespearean. By continuously portraying Biden as a stumbling, senile old fool, who is drooling all over himself, the Trump campaign had set the standards so low that, as long as he did not collapse on stage, Biden would do well. He succeeded.

On the other hand, Trump conducted himself as a man with little to lose, a role generally reserved for a challenger, not an incumbent. His strategy of not allowing for a real discussion on policies — for obvious reasons — but instead attempt to goad Biden into costly mistakes, failed.

And with the incumbent’s back against the wall, Tuesday’s debate is unlikely to remain the apogee of ugliness between Trump and Biden in the next five weeks before election day.