The first presidential debate is the most important — and Joe Biden won it.
These contests should be understood — and judged — as political events, not as high-school debating contests. Ask yourself: what should a successful candidate accomplish? He should put forward his own vision, define his opponent, generate enthusiasm among his voters (to ensure they turn out), and appeal to any who remain undecided. He must also answer the big reservations about his candidacy, including major weaknesses identified in polling and by the opposing campaign. And he must drive home his opponent’s weaknesses.
Using that scorecard, how did Joe Biden and Donald Trump perform?
Biden came into the debate with serious questions about his cognitive ability and energy. Neither was a problem during the debate, and his campaign must be delighted. He stumbled a few times over wording, as all extemporaneous speakers do, but he didn’t have a ‘Rick Perry Moment,’ where he lost his train of thought.
In a mud-slinging contest like this one, it is hard to look presidential, but he made a reasonable stab at it. He was clearly angry at times, calling President Trump a ‘clown’ at one point, but he stepped back before losing control.
Time and again, Biden turned to the camera, not to his opponent, and spoke directly to American voters in a clear, calm voice. He was appealing directly to undecided voters, renouncing the most extreme elements of his party’s platform. It’s unclear if that stance will hurt him with progressives and socialists in his party, as Trump said it would during the debate. More likely, their white-hot hatred for Trump will overwhelm their coolness for Biden.
Trump entered the debate as an underdog, trailing roughly 6 to 8 points in polls of ‘likely voters’ in swing states. Facing that uphill slog, he couldn’t come on stage and sit on a lead. Not that Donald Trump would ever do that. He lives to attack, and attack he did. Unfortunately for the President, the way he attacked failed to pin down his opponent and actually hurt Trump. By repeatedly interrupting Biden, talking past the agreed time-limits (when Biden did not), and attacking the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace. Trump underscored what so many independent voters find objectionable about him.
His supporters will say the moderator was unfair and Biden was lying. Whether or not that’s true, many voters find Trump’s hostile bluster offensive. Educated, suburban voters are especially unhappy with his behaviour. Those are voters Trump needs to win for reelection and he did nothing to convince them that he has grown ‘more presidential’ in the job. Equally important, that behaviour stepped all over his message.
Trump’s problem was a characteristic one. He was determined to win every contested issue, to respond to every attack on him or his record, even if he had to interrupt his opponent or the moderator to do it. That approach not only alienates voters, it misses the larger point. The goal here is not to win each debating point. It’s not to get every rebuttal on the record or show every time your opponent is wrong or lying. The goal isn’t to win each point, it is to win the match. That’s why chess grandmasters sometimes sacrifice a pawn. Trump never sacrifices a pawn. Sometimes, that leaves the king exposed. It did this time.
Some of Biden’s comments could come back to bite him. He strenuously denied his son Hunter had received millions from the former mayor of Moscow. Disproved already, he said. He denied any corruption in Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine and China. Putrid as those financial deals were, Trump missed an opportunity by turning them into personal attacks. The telling political point is that these deals epitomise the swamp, where insiders like Biden enrich themselves and their family thanks to their positions and connections. Those points might come up in the campaign’s final month, but they were lost on Tuesday night in the mudslinging. So was Biden’s constant flip-flopping on fracking and his preposterous promise that transforming America into a green paradise will pay for itself and create thousands of jobs. These issues should be huge liabilities for Biden, and Trump could have used the debate to nail his opponent on them. He didn’t.
Biden’s biggest contradiction went unnoticed. He lambasted Trump both for not locking down the country early enough or long enough and for the ‘depression’ caused by those very lockdowns. It is perfectly legitimate to criticise the President’s response to Covid. But it is sheer demagoguery to say earlier, longer, tougher lockdowns were essential and then pretend the President is Herbert Hoover for ordering the lockdowns he did.
The debate format was also a problem — for the country and especially for Trump. Moderator Chris Wallace insisted each candidate answer his questions instead of letting them speak directly to each other occasionally and lob hard questions. Trump’s team will say that Wallace was biased. The real problem was that the format turned the event into a series of ‘he says, then the other guy says,’ without letting each candidate put the other on the spot. Many of Trump’s interruptions were his efforts to pin down Biden or defend himself — to truly debate his opponent. In the process, he trampled over Biden and Wallace, who was determined to move on to the next question. That was a mistake for Trump but also quashed what could have been true engagement between candidates with very different views. Even a skilled pro like Wallace had a hard time maintaining control, but he may have tried too hard. His goal, it seemed, was not so much to be ringmaster at a debate as it was to conduct two parallel interviews for a Sunday morning programme.
Over the coming days, the mainstream media will drive home the idea that Trump not only lost, he degraded his office. Biden, by contrast, will be measured for Mount Rushmore. That’s a wild exaggeration of what happened on Tuesday night, but it is to be expected from a media that is now nakedly partisan. They loathe Trump, and the first debate gave them a lot to loathe.
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This article first appeared on The Spectator's US edition.