CNN Opinion asked contributors for their takes on how Donald Trump and Joe Biden did in the first presidential debate. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
Scott Jennings: This was a hot mess
My gut reaction to this debate is that Donald Trump will feel great about tying up and bludgeoning Joe Biden all night, Biden is wondering whether to show up at the next two debates and moderator Chris Wallace is planning to throw himself in a hot bath and cry.
This was a hot mess. If you love Trump’s smashmouth style, you loved tonight. If you are mortified by his behavior, you are madder than a hornet at the way he treated Biden. And if you were truly undecided, you learned very little.
Trump’s misses: a second term agenda and women. Trump made a classic incumbent president mistake by reciting first-term accomplishments but never really articulating an agenda for the next four years. And I suspect a great many female voters will be turned off by his unrelenting interruptions and badgering of Biden and Wallace.
Biden’s misses: The former vice president couldn’t do much of anything. He clearly had not prepared for Trump’s honey badger attack routine, despite it being the most predictable thing about this debate. Never really found a rhythm on any topic. He got better as the night went on as Trump eased up.
Wallace’s misses: God bless the moderator, who did his level best to control this debate while being hit in the face with a frying pan for 90 straight minutes. This will be remembered as the biggest debate mess in presidential campaign history.
It leaves me wondering whether the next two debates are going to happen.
Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.
SE Cupp: The Trump line that will sicken suburban women
“You would have lost far more people.”
That’s what President Trump said to Joe Biden, as the vice president tried to paint the tragic picture of a country that has lost more than 205,000 Americans to Covid-19.
“How many of you are in a situation where,” Biden asked, “you lost your mom or dad and you couldn’t even speak to them, you had to have a nurse holding the phone up so you could say goodbye…?”
To which Trump said – I’ll repeat it – “You would have lost far more people.”
In a night of damning lines, to me, it was one of the worst of the night. And it made me sick to my stomach.
President Trump, defending his response to Covid-19, which has brought an explosion of sickness and death—all on his watch– used those deaths as a political punchline to deflect from his own failures. To call it grotesque is to be too kind. And for suburban women like me, who Trump has lost in droves, it’s exactly what turns them off. In a moment of American crisis he can’t see the forest for the trees, and instead can only wage petty, personal attacks that seek to deflect blame or accountability.
The line was a slap in the face not only to the families of those who have died, but to all Americans who have struggled through this pandemic. Trump has taken no responsibility for denying the seriousness of Covid for too long, and here in this moment he chose to punt even further. In a debate full of hideous invective, childish and bullying taunts and baseless smears against Biden and his family, this particular attack wasn’t against the former vice president – it was, worse, against the American people.
S.E. Cupp is a CNN political commentator and the host of “SE Cupp Unfiltered.”
Van Jones: The only thing that mattered
Only three things happened that matter in Tuesday’s presidential debate. Number one: Donald Trump refused to condemn White supremacy. Number two: The President of the United States refused to condemn White supremacy. Number three: The Commander in Chief of the United States military refused to condemn White supremacy.
On a global stage, in front of my children and your families, he was given the opportunity multiple times to condemn White supremacy and he refused.
Instead he said “almost everything I see is from the left wing” and gave a wink and a nod to a far-right extremist organization – the Proud Boys – telling them to “stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys are now celebrating online because they are proud and excited to hear this man endorse them with an order to “stand by.”
I have a friend of color whose son watched this, turned to his mom, and asked if they should buy a gun to protect themselves. We are beyond politics at that point. We are in a moral swamp, watching behavior from the President that would not be tolerated in a kindergarten class.
Everyone I know is either disgusted, sad or horrified. That includes Republican friends, who are disgusted by Trump’s performance tonight.
We need a leader with great empathy to bind up the wounds of America and bring peace and stability. Ask yourself: What leader showed empathy tonight? Which one spoke to the American people directly? Which one connected with the pain of people who are hurting? And which one spent the entire night interrupting, shouting, arguing with the moderator, launching personal attacks and refusing to denounce White supremacists?
Biden repeatedly turned to the camera and addressed the American people directly. He talked about Covid-19 deaths leaving empty chairs at the kitchen table. He shared the struggle of having a child with substance abuse problems. He had some rough moments. It was not perfect. We can talk about the politics and presentation all day long.
But on the big, moral issues that transcend partisan debate – it is clear which candidate won.
Van Jones, a CNN host, is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice organization.
Raul Reyes: Trump’s failure to denounce White supremacy is a travesty
To call the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a circus is an insult to the good people who actually work in the circus industry, including the clowns. This evening was dispiriting, unilluminating – and proved, once again, that Trump is capable of bringing all those around him down to his level. It was a great disservice to the American people that Trump was such a corrosive presence throughout the debate.
Trump was wildly over-aggressive, at times seeming to be in a debate with the moderator as much as the former Vice President. Biden surely spoke for many viewers when he said, “Would you shut up, man?”
Trump’s combative persona is unlikely to win him new support among independent voters or suburban women. But Biden was off his game, clearly rattled by Trump’s childish interruptions, and stumbled to articulate his points effectively. Still, his exasperation was relatable to anyone who has tangled with a bully.
That said, Biden offered far more substance than Trump did. Where the President hurled accusations and insults, Biden acknowledged racial inequality and the devastating toll of Covid-19. He also smartly touched on two important numbers, 750 (the amount of federal income taxes that the New York Times reports that Trump paid in 2016, even though the President argued tonight he paid in the millions) and 200,000 (the approximate number of American deaths from coronavirus thus far).
There were two notable low points in the evening: One was when the President refused to clearly and succinctly condemn White supremacy. Given the mass shooting in El Paso and the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, it is still shocking that Trump would not denounce such bigotry.
Instead of blaming White supremacists directly, when pressed to address the issue, he said, “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.” He then undercut himself when referencing a right-wing group, saying, “Proud Boys — Stand back, stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not right-wing problem….. This is a left wing problem.”
The second was when Biden spoke emotionally about his late son Beau, pushing back against reports that the President had called those who died in military service “losers” and “suckers,” reports Trump continues to deny. Even then, Trump could not show a modicum of compassion and humanity, instead moving right on to attacking Hunter Biden, the former Vice President’s other son.
Biden did his best to have a serious discussion about the issues and deserves credit for that. The losers tonight were Trump, the hapless moderator Chris Wallace and viewers who endured over 90 minutes of this televised disgrace.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.
Sarah Isgur: The winner was a button on your TV remote control
I tuned in tonight expecting to write about what we learned about each campaign’s strategy to turn out their voters. But this debate taught us that there is only one tool that will help us build a happier and healthier America: the mute button.
This debate was a pointless exercise. Three men talked over each other for the vast majority of the 90 minutes. For voters wanting even the most basic understanding about what either Donald Trump or Joe Biden would do as president over the next four years, that was far too ambitious a goal for this debate. When only one person was talking–a rare occurrence–a viewer was more likely to hear petty insults and disjointed thoughts than a plan to speed up production and distribution of a vaccine to tackle the coronavirus pandemic or how to ensure kids are back in school in the spring.
I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve worked on the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 and Carly Fiorina in 2016, and in all three branches of our government. I’ve never seen anything like this, and it served no discernible purpose.
President Trump came into tonight’s debate hall trailing Joe Biden in every national poll. He needed to shift the race, and there were dozens of ways he might have attempted to do that. Needless to say, nothing that happened in tonight’s debate changed the fundamentals of this race, except, perhaps, to lower the viewership of future debates unless moderators are given the ability to mute each candidate when it is not his turn to talk.
Tonight’s winner? Your remote control’s mute button.
Sarah Isgur is a CNN political analyst. She is a staff writer at The Dispatch and an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. She previously worked on three Republican presidential campaigns and graduated from Harvard Law School.
John Sutter: Enough with the ‘immaculate air’ nonsense
Mr. President, the air of 2020 is far from “immaculate.”
In an effort to deflect earnest — if misguided, and we’ll get to that — questions from moderator Chris Wallace about the climate crisis, Donald Trump in the first presidential debate on Tuesday night ducked questions about the fossil fuel pollution that’s throwing the Earth into existential crisis. Instead, he said that he’s in favor of “immaculate air.”
This obfuscation is frustrating because it pulls from years-old and beyond-tired fossil fuel industry talking points: Distract from the fact that coal, oil and gas are heating up the planet, making storms, droughts and fires more intense. It’s infuriating because more than 3 million acres of California have burned this year. That’s yet another sign that this is the era of the climate emergency — now. Not in the future. And Trump’s policies are adding fuel to the fire.
Air quality in western cities like Portland, Oregon, Seattle and San Francisco have registered among the worst in the world in recent weeks. There’s no way you’ve gone on the internet in the last couple weeks and not seen photos of skies stained orange and red.
Every US citizen should support cleaner air. Millions die globally each year because of air pollution — and that’s unnecessary. You know what would fix it? Policies like the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation that took on the coal industry. Trump helped dispense of that, in effect. He also pledged to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which aims to rid the world of fossil fuel pollution that traps heat and dirties the skies.
If you actually care about “immaculate air,” you don’t cozy up to fossil fuel industries.
You fight the climate crisis, and you take it head on.
As for Wallace and his questions: Asking a sitting president whether he believes in climate change, as Katharine Wilkinson, from Project Drawdown, pointed out on Twitter, is misguided at best. Climate science is not a belief system, regardless of what politicians want you to think. It’s a reality we can choose to face or ignore. We’ve been doing the latter for decades.
John D. Sutter is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a National Geographic Explorer. He is director of the forthcoming BASELINE documentary series, which is visiting four locations on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Visit the project’s website or follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
Tara Setmayer: The contrast between Biden and Trump couldn’t have been more stark
After nearly four years, it should surprise no one that the first presidential debate would mirror the chaotic dysfunction of the Trump presidency. Presidential debates are supposed to be platforms for candidates to inform voters about their records and policy prescriptions, their vision for the country and their temperament for leadership.
Unfortunately, Trump’s petulant intransigence and dishonest display sullied the time-honored event.
Coming into Tuesday’s debate, Trump was already under water with women voters by historic margins. It’s hard to find anything Trump said or did that would reverse that trend.
He was so boorish and uncontrollable that moderator Chris Wallace had to stop and scold the President like an unruly child several times. The few undecided voters still left should ask themselves why, if they wouldn’t put up with such behavior from their own child, they would accept it from the President of the United States?
After incessant interruptions by Trump during almost every answer, Biden frustratedly succumbed to his exasperation and called Trump a clown. Thankfully, there were many other moments where Biden’s passion, empathy and decency came through.
Among the most effective and memorable moments came after a barrage of Trump rantings, when Biden looked into the camera and spoke directly to the American people about the devastating impacts of Trump’s leadership failures, particularly on Covid-19. Unlike Trump, who attacked the election process as “going to be a fraud like you have never seen” and hedged on clearly condemning white supremacists (again), Biden committed to accepting the election results and spoke out against lawlessness and racial injustice.
While Trump’s debate answers seemed aimed at providing aid and comfort to extremists and conspiracy theorists, Biden’s message was one of unity, assurance and a return to normality.
The contrast couldn’t be any more stark and it was on full display for the American people to see. Do they really want four more years of indecency, incompetence and chaos? Come Election Day, we’ll know which vision for America they’ve chosen.
Tara Setmayer is a former GOP communications director, host of the “Honestly Speaking with Tara” podcast and a CNN political contributor. She is a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project.
Keith Boykin: The worst debate in American history
Joe Biden clearly won Tuesday night’s debate, but that’s not the point. What Americans just witnessed was the worst presidential debate in American history and a compelling argument to cancel the rest of the season’s presidential debates.
From the very first question, President Donald Trump was rude, disrespectful and unpresidential, but his responses to three of moderator Chris Wallace’s questions were outright disqualifying.
First, Trump calling the upcoming election, in which we are seeing a surge in mail-in ballots, “a fraud” was outrageous. We’ve never seen an American president openly undermine the integrity of the American election system right before an election. This is what dictators do – not democratic leaders.
Second, Trump refusing to forcefully condemn White supremacists and right-wing militia groups, even after one of his own supporters was recently charged with killing two people and injuring a third, shows just how insensitive he is to America’s raging race problem. Pressed by moderator Chris Wallace on whether he would condemn white supremacist supporters, Trump said, “Sure. I’m willing to do that.” But then seemed to walk it back, telling Proud Boys, a far right extremist group, to “stand back and stand by.” It was a disgrace that gave aid and comfort to racist bigots all across America.
Third, in the midst of the worst public health crisis in 100 years and the worst economic crisis in 80 years, Trump provided no plans for what he would do about these crises if given another four years in office. Instead, with more than 200,000 Americans dead from Covid-19, Trump took credit for bringing back college football.
While the President spent the entire night attacking, lying, distracting, rambling and interrupting, Biden was calm and intelligent, often looking directly into the camera to push past the spectacle and address the American people directly. Biden asked, “Do you believe for a moment what he’s telling you in light of all the lies he’s told about the whole issue relating to Covid?
Finally, while Trump gave vague promises of “immaculate air” and “immaculate water,” Biden gave specific proposals on climate change and other issues. The contrast was dramatic. America should be ashamed we ever allowed Trump to be president.
Keith Boykin is a CNN political commentator and a former White House aide to President Bill Clinton.
Peter Bergen: Biden won on the most important crisis facing the US
The coronavirus is the worst public health crisis the country has faced in a century, yet in the presidential debate Tuesday night President Donald Trump didn’t make even a pro forma statement acknowledging the pain and the suffering of the more than 200,000 American families who have had loved ones die of Covid-19. Nor did the President make any kind of empathetic gesture to the 7 million Americans who have become infected with the coronavirus, many of whom will face health complications that may not be lethal, but that will still leave them seriously ill.
Instead, during the debate, Trump, as he has done repeatedly before, gave himself a giant pat on the back for the “great job” his administration has done combating Covid-19.
As Biden was quick to point out, the US has 4% of the world’s population but more than 20% of the reported deaths from the virus.
During the debate, Trump presented no plan for what he would actually do about the coronavirus should he be elected to a second term, other than to shout some slogans about Biden wanting to close the country down and the US being “weeks away from a vaccine,” while top scientists in his own administration say that any potential vaccine likely won’t be widely available until summer 2021.
Biden jumped on Trump about his past delusional thinking about the coronavirus: That it would be gone by Easter; that taking bleach might help eliminate the virus and that warm weather would chase the virus away.
The coronavirus, of course, didn’t take a summer vacation. Instead, in states such as Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming over the past week there have been record one-day rises in the rates of coronavirus infection, according to Reuters.
So, whoever assumes the presidency on January 20, 2021 will have to deal with the arguably the most complex crisis facing the US since World War II.
Trump certainly made no case that he was the right guy for dealing with this crisis on the debate stage on Tuesday night.
Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is senior editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the book “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos.”
Frida Ghitis: In horrifying debate, Trump shows why he’s a threat to America
If the election is a referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump, this debate, horrifying as it was, offered the perfect showcase. Trump acted like a bully– lying, shouting, sweating, and saying things that could encourage more racism and more violence. It wasn’t even subtle.
Pressed by moderator Chris Wallace, who insisted on knowing if Trump would be willing to condemn white supremacist supporters, Trump eventually said, “Sure. I’m willing to do that.” But he also issued a call to one of the most abhorrent groups in America, the so-called “Proud Boys,” whose name you may have first heard in the infamous 2017 rally in Charlottesville, amid the crowds chanting of “Jews will not replace us.” Trump’s message from the debate stage, “Proud boys, stand back and stand by.” Stand by? For what?
When asked later if he would tell his supporters to refrain from violence and accept the election results, Trump refused, instead telling his backers to go “watch” the polls. We have already seen reports of Trump supporters harassing Democratic voters at the polls. Trump threw more logs in the fire he has been building for months, with claims about election fraud, ominously laying the ground to reject the election results if he loses.
He showed what a dangerous President he is. He confirmed that this election is a choice about whether the country will accelerate its drift toward autocracy or return to its democratic path.
Biden kept his cool, and made many good points. Outshouting Trump was out of the question even for the enfeebled moderator. Biden was at his best when he ignored Trump’s rants and spoke directly to viewers. “Do you believe for a moment what he’s telling you in light of all the lies he’s told you…relating to Covid?” Trump repeatedly tried to switch subjects and hit Biden about his son Hunter, who is not running for president. Biden rejected the claims about his son. Then he looked straight into the camera, and said, “This is not about my family or his family. It’s about your family. He doesn’t want to talk about you, what you need.”
Don’t feel sorry for Biden, feel sorry for America. This was a bad night for the country, a shameful display from a shameless president.
Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis.
Paul Begala: Trump confirms he is the candidate who brings chaos
That’s the word Democrats want to use to define the Trump presidency. Chaos is the indictment the Democrats want to press on Donald Trump. And tonight, Donald Trump pleaded guilty.
The first presidential debate was, even for the Trump era, chaotic. The President interrupted Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly, whined about the press, and sparred with poor Chris Wallace, the moderator.
Biden counter-punched in frustration, telling Trump at one point, “Will you shut up, man?” And the people watching at home surely shouted, “Amen!” Biden was at his strongest talking about the Covid-19 crisis, speaking of the more than 205,000 dead; the families with an empty chair at the table.
Trump’s performance seemed almost unhinged, as if he or his strategists concluded that the American people wanted him to yell more, interrupt more, lie more. It is difficult to imagine anyone not already committed to Trump seeing that performance and being reassured. Repulsed is more like it.
For months Trump has claimed Joe Biden is not up to the job. The morning of the debate, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani even accused Biden of having dementia. In fact, Biden showed flashes of righteous indignation, launching his most withering and effective line of the night when Trump attacked Biden son Hunter: “This is not about family,” he said, turning to face the camera. “It’s about your family, American people. It’s about you.”
A lot of families are struggling. They’re balancing lost jobs, dealing with depleted savings, looming eviction, canceled health insurance, a deadly virus surging, kids unable to go to school. Their lives are chaotic enough. They want compassion. They want competence. They want caring. Biden offered that tonight. Trump only offered more chaos.
Nayyera Haq: Biden was the one with bite
Despite there being no woman on stage at Tuesday’s presidential debate, Joe Biden’s tone and composure made him relatable for female voters. Biden’s responses to Donald Trump showed empathy with the suburban women voters who may determine the outcome of the election. Biden spoke directly to the camera multiple times, telling viewers he was committed to working for American families, in contrast with Trump, who only focused on enriching himself.
Every mother watching surely related to Biden’s increasingly exasperated sighs and deep calming breaths in response to Trump’s constant, childish interruptions, and every working woman must at some point have channeled Biden’s efforts at serenity when being talked over and shut down by men like Trump. Biden wins extra points for largely maintaining his composure for the duration of the debate; most parents would have snapped well before 90-minutes of non-stop yammering.
Biden also did not involve Trump’s children in the debate, despite Trump’s attacks on Biden’s son throughout – a sign of Biden’s admirable strength of character. Biden spoke emotionally about both of his children. While Trump’s inability to empathize with Biden’s loss of his son Beau was jarring, Biden’s declaration that he was proud of son Hunter for overcoming addiction offered a rare heartwarming moment.
That’s not to say Biden was soft in response to Trump’s pit bull behavior. On the contrary, Biden was actually the one with real bite Tuesday night, calling Trump out for “yapping” and dismissing Trump as “Putin’s puppy.” While Trump kept worrying at the bone of belligerence, Biden’s composure and continuous effort to speak directly to America’s families had him coming out of this debate as the alpha male.
Nayyera Haq is a host of The Global Experience on SiriusXM Progress. She served in the Obama administration as a senior adviser in the State Department and a senior director in the White House. Follow her @nayyeroar.
Julian Zelizer: The huge issue that Chris Wallace, strangely, downplayed
Nobody “won this debate.” It was pure chaos, an insult to deliberative democracy. We all lose when something like this takes place.
But in terms of whose campaign will be more pleased, that probably goes to Joe Biden. Why is this the case? Biden is winning the race right now; President Trump is a weak incumbent. Polls consistently show that Biden is doing well in most of the key states.
Despite all the low expectations, Biden showed that he has command of the issues and can handle this kind of interaction much better than his critics predicted. He hit any number of key issues and stood by as the President failed to condemn white supremacist groups. When the President went after Hunter Biden, Trump showed the ugly.
The debate, however, certainly was not a home run for the Democrats. Chris Wallace structured the debate in a way that downplayed the central issue of our time: Covid-19. The moderator treated the pandemic, and the failed response since February, as one issue among many—rather than the defining issue of our time. It’s like not highlighting the financial crash and Great Depression during a debate in 1932.
By the second half of the debate, the back-and-forth descended into chaos on steroids. It felt like more time was spent on Hunter Biden than Covid-19. The chaos takes Biden away from the core issues.
For now, Biden can live with that. Trump isn’t working for huge numbers of voters, including those precious suburbanites. This debate won’t change things.
Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer.
Jessica Anderson: Unfinished business after first debate
The two candidates on stage tonight had one audience in mind – undecided independents in swing states. Biden failed to convince them, while Trump likely made progress.
Biden may have performed well by the standards of DC groupthink, but he failed to engage with the real concerns on independents’ minds. Biden dodged a questions about packing the Supreme Court, how he would handle the pandemic differently – other than locking down the entire country – and whether he would abolish the Senate filibuster. He also floundered when confronted with the violence sweeping the nation’s cities.
Biden cannot answer these questions without alienating the extremists in his party. If he shouts down court-packing, he loses liberals. If he articulates a well-coordinated plan for economic recovery and the pandemic, he loses the strawman arguments against Trump. Biden has nowhere to go, so instead, he stayed silent and lost any edge he may have had with swing voters.
We do know that Biden has said he would eliminate many of Trump tax cuts, which were a historic boon for the middle class, according to The Heritage Foundation. Instead of telling working families how his platform would help them, Biden undercut them by talking about expanding Obamacare, raising taxes, and offered a weird riff on Brazilian rainforests.
By contrast, Trump focused on the extensive achievements of his administration and provided details that matter, like massive pre-Covid job creation that he is bringing back and his support for small businesses through pro-growth tax reform. He repeated his support for law enforcement and opposition to violence and anarchy — something Biden struggled to do.
These issues matter. While independents might not like President Trump’s style, they like his substance and have benefited from his presidency. The next debate offers a chance to bring those voters home.
Jessica Anderson is Executive Director of Heritage Action, a nationwide grassroots organization. She is also the Founder and President of Moms for Safe Neighborhoods, a PAC advocating on safety and security issues and supporting President Trump. Anderson formerly served as an Associate Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2017 to 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @JessAnderson2.
David Gergen: A gross insult to America’s voters
Tuesday night’s “debate,” if you can even call it that, was a gross insult to America’s voters and an embarrassment for America overseas. The Commission on Presidential Debates should call off the remaining presidential debates unless it can renegotiate the terms.
Keep the two-minute format, for example, but for each single minute a candidate interrupts the other, the moderator should reduce his remaining time by two minutes. No doubt, there may be more creative solutions, but if the commission can’t negotiate one, bring down the curtain on any more monstrosities like the first debate.
It was also a disaster for President Donald Trump. He went into the debate urgently needing to turn the race around. In CNN’s post-debate poll, six in 10 voters thought that Joe Biden beat Trump. We may one day look back and say this debate ended his reelection prospects.
As for Biden, a number of commentators thought he did okay. In my book, he was flat and tentative in the first half hour or so, but just when it appeared that he was tiring, he pulled himself together and was much more effective. Overall, Biden showed that he has the energy, firmness and acuity to take office. He rarely let Trump rattle him, which wasn’t an easy task. And instead of being a radical socialist, as Trump argued, he came across as a moderate and a neighbor who genuinely cared for his fellow Americans.
Bottom line: Trump self-destructed, and Biden is now a strong front runner.
David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he founded the Center for Public Leadership.
Lanhee J. Chen: A black eye for American democracy
Tuesday’s debate was a black eye for American democracy. Across the country, people observed the two candidates bickering and asked, “Is this the best we can do?” It’s often been said that the general election debates are a job interview for the presidency of the United States. If that’s so, we might want to look back into that pile of resumes after tonight’s tangle.
Moderator Chris Wallace valiantly tried to push back on both candidates when they violated the rules, but he was powerless to do more than admonish them. Given how unproductive the debate was, we shouldn’t be surprised if the two candidates decide not to meet for another one or two. And the American people won’t be worse for the wear if that happens, because we really didn’t learn anything new about either Donald Trump or Joe Biden tonight.
Each candidate will be able to claim victory in some way. Trump and his campaign were able to use the debate to put a bad news cycle behind them and can take solace in the fact that Biden wasn’t more aggressive in attacking the President with the New York Times reporting on Trump’s miniscule income tax payments in 2016 and 2017.
On the flip side, the Biden team can argue that their candidate was competent (if not sharp) in his responses during the debate and didn’t lose his composure even when attacked and prodded during the debate. He was also able to land a few punches against the President, particularly with respect to the administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ultimately, though, the debate likely won’t matter very much because it didn’t change any minds. Voters who are undecided will likely continue to remain so – and the battle for their support will continue on for the next five weeks. But they shouldn’t count on more debates to help them make up their minds.
Lanhee J. Chen is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution and Director of Domestic Policy Studies in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University. He served as policy director to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and senior adviser to Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2016.
Alice Stewart: The American people deserve a debate – not a cage fight
Two words for the first presidential debate in Ohio: train wreck.
Valid points and persuasion got lost in the interruptions and insults. Visions for the future were clouded by beat downs of the past. If the goal is to win over undecided voters, I don’t see where either side moved the needle.
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden did make several major talking points that spoke directly to their parties, but it’s what they didn’t say that will be remembered.
Trump touted his successes: appointing hundreds of judges to federal courts, a strong pre-pandemic economy and a firm commitment to the law enforcement community. He said he’d done more in 47 months than Biden has done in 47 years.
The President, however, will pay a price for his refusal to forcefully condemn White supremacists and disavow all they stand for.
Trump had also set the bar pretty low for Biden, after months of attacking his mental acuity. At the debate, Biden managed to take two steps forward, one step back.
The former Vice President scored points for looking directly into the camera and connecting with voters. To the degree that is remembered, it will go a long with way women and undecided voters. Many of them likely want a candidate with empathy.
But Biden lost points by calling Trump a “clown” and telling him to shut up. Voters appreciate the Michelle Obama mantra: “When they go low, we go high.” He also didn’t help his cause when he didn’t answer a question directly. Biden criticized Trump for moving forward with a Supreme Court nominee weeks before an election, but he refused to answer the question about whether he would pack the court. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to go on record about this critical issue.
I’m all about a healthy debate, but both candidates need to dial it back in their next meeting. The American people deserve a debate – not a cage fight.
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University, and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President.
John Avlon: First debate lacks dignity US deserves
Presidential debates are supposed to illuminate, create clear contrasts between candidates and show the strength of our democracy. This one was a disaster – overwhelmingly because of President Trump’s bully-boy performance. It showed the fundamental lack of respect he has for the democratic process.
Debates are often remembered by one-liners. For my money, these are the two that will stand out when the smoke clears:
Joe Biden: “Will you shut up, man?”
Donald Trump: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
Vice President Joe Biden’s exasperated remark was a rare moment when he lost his cool under constant fire. But with Trump serially interrupting him, as a matter of strategy or instinct, Biden spoke for a lot of Americans watching at home.
Trump’s statement about the Proud Boys was the most troubling – he seemed to walk back his response to a question from moderator Chris Wallace only moments before that he would condemn White supremacist violence. It was not a hard question.
Trump gave the impression that he thinks the Proud Boys report to him, and more importantly, raised the question: just what are they standing by for?
Whenever Biden got on a roll, Trump would interrupt and go low – sometimes bizarrely so. For example, he interrupted a statement on the pandemic that’s killed some 205,000 Americans to date to say that Biden isn’t smart – and to falsely suggest he’d lied about where he’d done to college. Trump lied about his environmental policies, his economic record, mail-in voting and so much more.
Biden could have landed more punches – he didn’t hit Trump’s $750 dollars in federal income taxes nearly hard enough. He failed to mention Trump’s impeachment – again – which was over the President’s attempt to dig up dirt on the Biden family, withholding military aid in the process (though Biden calling Trump “Putin’s puppy” was a good line) .
Some folks will walk away thinking that both candidates were diminished by the debate, but this no time for both-sider-ism – it is dangerous. Don’t miss the underlying threat that Trump doubled down on again – refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power – and basically stating that he believed the election results would be fraudulent.
For all noise, the signal was still clear: Biden showed up to have a presidential debate. Trump showed up to throw rhetorical feces – mistaking bluster for strength. In the process, he made a mess of himself and the debate.
Now it’s going to be up to the American people to clean up this mess on election day and restore some dignity to our democracy.
John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst.