By Mark Z. Barabak and Melanie Mason
Los Angeles Times
Well that was ugly.
After a series of world-shaking events, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden grappled face to face (sort of) in their first presidential debate Tuesday night _ a scabrous spectacle that held out the prospect of dramatically upending their seemingly immovable contest.
Typically, debates like this rowdy, off-the-rails session harden opinions, rather than change minds. It will take days _ and endless playback loops _ to know the full impact, if any, of the slugfest on a socially distanced stage in Cleveland.
Meantime, here are several key takeaways:
- TRUMP UNTETHERED
He bullied. He blustered. He talked over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace.
For Trump it was a point of pride how little he seemed to ready himself for Tuesday night’s confrontation.
Simply doing his job was practice enough, he said, stating what other presidents apparently believed as well. Their reckoning came when those overconfident incumbents arrived on stage and, rust showing, came to regret their presumption and lack of preparation.
Trump, though, has never been a conventional debater. He has no use for the tyranny of timekeepers, the standards of common courtesy or the obligations of social grace.
He repeatedly interrupted Biden, needling him with personal insults and ignoring Wallace’s efforts to rein him in and at least glancingly answer the questions put to the two candidates.
“Will you shut up, man,” Biden exclaimed at one point, in obvious frustration.
In sum, it was a vintage Trump performance _ which doubtless thrilled his supporters but probably did little to broaden support much beyond his hardcore, well-short-of-a-majority base.
- NOT-SO-SLEEPY JOE
For more than a year, Trump has taunted his rival as “Sleepy Joe,” painting the former vice president as a barely sentient dotard who could hardly speak a complete sentence, much less run the country.
The hyperbolic accusations left Biden with the lowest of bars to clear, and he largely did. While Biden at times stumbled over phrases or unleashed some unwieldy sentences, he had no major “senior moment” that would fuel questions of his competency.
Trump, 74, and his allies, perhaps sensing they had misplayed the all-important expectations game, tried a last-minute change of course leading up to the debate. They preemptively mused, without evidence, that Biden was using performance-enhancing drugs or an earpiece to receive offstage help _ all to explain away a sharp performance by the Democrat.
Baseless mudslinging aside, Biden’s mental acuity has remained a real question among voters. The 77-year-old at multiple times directly addressed the camera, in hopes of allaying those concerns.
- THE PANDEMIC DEBATE
Shrouding the entire debate was the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 1 million people worldwide and ended, at least for now, life as we once knew it.
Biden laid into Trump early and often, holding him personally responsible for the more than 200,0000 Americans who have died so far _ fully 20% of the world’s total.
“The president has no plan,” the Democrat asserted. “He panicked.”
Trump would have none of it, accusing China of setting the virus loose on the world and suggesting the toll would been vastly higher had Biden been in charge.
“You were a disaster,” he said, when the H1N1 flu hit the United States early in the Obama administration.
“Fourteen thousand died,” Biden shot back. “We didn’t shut down the economy.”
The deadly disease asserted itself even before the topic arose in one of six discrete rounds of questioning.
There was no traditional handshake to start _ sparing the two antagonists from pretending to make nice even briefly _ and the candidates were carefully spaced a medically prescribed distance apart.
Most notably there was no large studio audience to boo and cheer, denying Trump, in particular, the adrenaline rush he gets playing to a vocal crowd of supporters.
That left most zingers to land with a decided thud.
- SCHOOLYARD TAUNTS
The volley of put-downs and insults between the candidate seemed at times to be more fitting for a playground than a debate stage.
“There’s nothing smart about you,” Trump told Biden, insulting the former vice president’s scholastic performance.
Trump’s unrelenting interruptions made him appear as though he was spoiling for a fight. Biden, while less frequent, also made cutting remarks.
“You’re the worst president America has ever had,” Biden told Trump, and later called him a “clown.”
After a particularly nasty exchange in which Trump disparaged Biden’s son Hunter and his past drug addiction, the moderator appeared desperate to return to some semblance of a policy debate.
“I think the American people would rather hear about substantial subjects,” Wallace said.
- RETURN OF THE TAX RETURNS
It’s been the subject of endless speculation _ and litigation _ but for much of his presidency, Trump has managed to keep the details of his tax returns out of public view. Then the New York Times dropped a bombshell, just 48 hours before the debate: They got ‘em.
Their deep-dive investigation showed a complicated web of business losses, personal debts and tax write-offs _ including $70,000 for hairstyling _ but Wallace honed in on a key takeaway: how much he paid in federal income taxes.
“Millions of dollars,” Trump answered.
That answer was at odds with the New York Times’ report, which said Trump’s personal income tax bill was $750 in two recent years, and zero before that.
“Show us your tax returns,” Biden interjected. Trump said he would do so “as soon as it’s finished,” apparently referring to an ongoing audit. There is no reason why an audit would preclude him from releasing the documents.
Trump said that, like any business person, he looked for ways to pay less in taxes. That gave Biden an opening to blast the current tax code, in which a school teacher would pay less than a billionaire like, Trump.
- SUPREME SKIRMISH
Just in case a global pandemic and economic downturn weren’t enough fodder, the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the warp-speed efforts by Republicans to fill her seat injected even more drama into the campaign.
It’s the rare case where both sides believe they have the political upper hand.
Trump, who has successfully appointed more than 200 judges to the federal courts, was eager to rally Republicans with his pick of appeals court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, an acolyte of the late conservative hero Justice Antonin Scalia.
“We have a phenomenal nominee,” Trump said, predicting she’d be “as good as anybody that has served.”
Biden, meantime, leaped at the chance to warn of the threat he sees Barrett posing to the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights. That argument could fire up both liberals and independents who are wary of an ultraconservative high court.
Pointing out that the election is already underway, he said the vacancy should remain open until the voters could weigh in.
“The American people should speak,” Biden said, exhorting the audience to turn out. “Vote and let your senators know how strongly you feel.”
- TO TELL THE TRUTH
Trump has long had an elastic, slippery relationship with the truth, which made real time fact-checking an especially fraught proposition.
Going in, the Biden camp insisted it wasn’t the Democrat’s job to rebut Trump’s erroneous claims. Wallace said he wouldn’t play truth cop the whole night either, seeing no obligation to call out Trump’s misstatements or correct Biden’s exaggerations.
That left the two candidates to self-referee _ Says who? Says you! _ and viewers at home to puzzle out what was real, what was fake and what was hyperbole.
Edifying it was not.
Wallace, the moderator of “Fox News Sunday,” is a polished newsman and highly skilled interrogator. But amid the relentless hollering and cacophony of insults, he was continually reduced to pleading for the tiniest semblance of order.
“Mr. President, please,” he said over and over, reminding Trump his campaign agreed to a set of ground rules he blithely ignored. “Mr. President, let him answer.”
There are food fights waged with more decorum.