"I'm sure we're going to have many disputes about who won or lost Tuesday night's debate and I'm sure that most of that will break down along party lines, because this is where we are," says Daniel Fienberg. "But I'd love to see anybody on either side dispute this: If you tuned into Tuesday's debate looking for a substantive discussion on actual issues, you didn't get it. Vice President Joe Biden tried, but he was back on his heels almost the entire time as President Donald Trump misrepresented Biden's policies aggressively and persistently over 90 minutes. Donald Trump didn't go into this debate to have a conversation or even to argue on his own record. He just didn't, and if you got one or two of his handlers even slightly drunk (or maybe not even that) they'd admit it. Trump went in to badger, interrupt and bully Joe Biden. And hey, you know what? If that's what he wanted to do, that's what he wanted to do. And I'm betting that a solid percentage of voters — most of his base, at least — thought Trump succeeded. So be it. But if you tuned into Tuesday's debate hoping for a thoughtful conversation about anything, you got whatever the absolute opposite of that is. So no matter what your insta-polling tells you tonight, the only people who won tonight's debate are the people who didn't watch — and even if you didn't watch, it's not like you aren't stuck dealing with the ramifications. So we all lost. We lost Stateside. And we lost in terms of global perception: I can't imagine anybody anywhere in the world watching that debate and not feeling embarrassed for the American Experiment and where it stands. This was shameful...This was sh*tty television. Maybe we were never going to get a Lincoln-Douglas debate, but there had to be a middle ground that wasn't releasing a hyena on the stage and politely trying to tell the hyena that he and his handlers agreed that this would be a no-ankle-gnawing debate."
The debate was some of the worst TV that the country should ever have to see: "Tuesday night’s debate between President Trump and Joe Biden was a low point for television, for politics, for America — 95 minutes of proof that the nation has slipped into irredeemable darkness," says Hank Stuever. "It was some of the worst TV that the country should ever have to see; years from now, I expect to see it ranked alongside terrorist attacks, space shuttle explosions and erroneous Oscar announcements. The blame for this goes to the president, who I’m sure believes he did a wonderful job, but who, in fact, debased the medium that made him." Stuever adds: "At home, we weren’t chuckling or shrugging at the absurdity of all. Many of us were screaming at our TVs, engorged as we are on the facts, the outrage and the clapbacks we’ve mastered in these low, endlessly combative years. Once or twice, Wallace served as a sturdy cross-examiner of both men, but his reliance on simple decorum (and the notion that he could keep either candidate on-topic) was overrun by the president’s rudeness. What Wallace needed most was an on-off switch for Trump’s microphone. It’s the only way (along with turning off Trump’s camera while Biden is talking) to have a broadcast that looks even halfway like a debate. Trump, of course, wants everything to look like chaos. He’s running on the hope that he can make the entire process — not just the counting of votes — look like a fiasco. If further TV debates are to continue as scheduled (although the time has come to ask why they should), the organizers and moderators need to install a means to restrict the president’s ability to keep talking. Just shut him up when it’s not his turn. (<i>Shut. Him. Up. . . . Shut. Him. Up.</i>) Without such a device, and with a president who cannot act like a human being, what’s the point of going on? What we saw Tuesday night was a travesty — but not a surprise. The whole election cycle has become an exercise in dread, filled with dreadful stops along the way."
A word like "train wreck" feels inadequate to describe what happened: "The advantage to being the one who derails a debate is that people assign symmetrical blame for asymmetrical behavior," says James Poniewozik. "They throw up their hands and complain about the bickering from 'both sides.' So let’s be clear here: If the first debate was a dumpster fire, it is the president whose hands were stained with kerosene. Donald Trump has always approached debates like a guy in a bar fight looking for a bottle to break. But in the Cleveland studio, the Covid-19 pandemic had the effect of locking up the barware and cutlery. The audience — which he’s used in past debates to invite stunt guests, incite reactions and feed his energy — was small and quiet. The physical contact was minimal, so he couldn’t lurk and loom. Instead, he looked within himself. Specifically, to his vocal cords. Mr. Trump, who has always viewed politics as a reality-TV display of dominance, fought the debate as if it were being scored by volume and number of sentences interrupted. There were important issues on the agenda — the pandemic, the wounded economy, climate change. But Mr. Trump was mostly determined to drown them, and his opponent, and even the moderator, out."
Cancel the final two debates!: "It is traumatic to live in a country where everyone is suffering, some much more than others, but political polarization has made even the most seemingly apolitical crises into us-vs.-them conflicts," says Judy Berman. "In the end, all Tuesday’s tête-à-tête accomplished was to pour fresh salt on festering wounds. And with that in mind, canceling the final two debates of the 2020 election cycle—debates that seem more likely to create confusion than to dispel it—sounds like the only humane option. Networks could fill the time with fact-checked primers on the issues, or crucial information on how to exercise our voting rights, or reruns of Scandal. Just about anything would be more helpful in preserving our democracy than what we just witnessed."
That was a good debate!: "The first presidential debate of the 2020 general election was an exhausting and dispiriting affair," says Justin Peters. "For 90 minutes, Trump kept on interrupting and belittling Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. When he wasn’t heckling the other two men onstage, he was working hard to lock up the ignorant-maniac vote. He refused to condemn white supremacy. He spouted discredited conspiracy theories. He took credit for things he didn’t do and lied about things he did. He literally encouraged his supporters to go to the polls to keep tabs on election fraud. The president conclusively exposed who he really is to a national audience—and while I get why one might not want to witness two more of these, that’s why this one was a good debate. For almost four years, Donald Trump has successfully avoided dissenting opinion, admitting little outside light into his cloister of morons. He has met the media on his own terms, in venues where he filibusters over hard questions and elicits softballs from friendly reporters. He has cultivated the credulous lickspittles of Fox News’ opinion division and used them as conduits for his inaccurate, self-serving messages. But since becoming president, he has not once been challenged for an extended period by a hostile opponent and a competent moderator. And in the face of both of those things, he melted down. Moderator Chris Wallace did superhuman work trying to keep Trump on task and honest. Though he didn’t succeed at either of those things, he never stopped trying, and for that, he deserves applause and sympathy. At one point, he all but threw up his hands and yelled at Trump for not respecting the ground rules of the debate."
Biden laughed too much at the camera: "This was clearly a strategy that had been decided upon ahead of time: that when Trump told one of his whoppers (and we’ll get to those in a moment), Biden would look down and grin that grin, as if he were laughing at the sheer shamelessness of what he was hearing," says Owen Gleiberman. "But that’s not an effective debating technique. You can do it once, or maybe twice. But Biden did it repeatedly, smiling to himself as if to say, 'My God, that’s too insane to even answer.' And, in fact, he didn’t quite answer Trump’s lies — not in the way he should have. He pointed them out; he undercut them; he quoted statistics. Yet for all his laughing contempt, and even his willingness to say a line like 'Will you shut up, man?' or to call Trump a 'clown,' he never took command. He never came up with a cleanly articulated moment in which he talked about the way that so many of us feel about this president — that he is reckless, that his sociopathic selfishness is destroying American institutions and American faith, and maybe destroying America itself. Instead, Biden had numbers ('15 percent less violence in America than there was today…'), and he had a lot of fumbling pique. Trump, of course, said whatever he wanted, and sounded supremely confident about it. He drew on his greatest hits of distortion, going wild with the mythic Trump presidency that lives in his head."
Chris Wallace was the debate's biggest loser: "Wallace at times tried to stop the interruptions," says German Lopez. "But he repeatedly blamed both Trump and Biden, when Trump was clearly doing far more of the interrupting. At one point, Wallace seemed to give up altogether, saying, 'I’m going to ask a question about race, but if you want to answer something else, go ahead.' It wasn’t until an hour and 10 minutes into the debate, out of an hour and a half, that Wallace called Trump out: 'Mr. President, your campaign agreed both sides would get two-minute answers uninterrupted. Your side agreed to it. And why don’t you observe that?' Even after that, Trump continued to interrupt Biden. Wallace never really claimed control of the stage. He even had to declare, “This is the end of this debate,” when it was over, signaling he couldn’t even successfully bring the program to an end. This almost certainly wasn’t the debate that Wallace wanted. And it left Americans with a largely incoherent mess."
Wallace's performance is baffling since he works for Fox News, which knows the president better than any other news outlet: "The fact that Trump was a human battering ram with contempt for the rules of conduct likely came as no surprise to anyone, except perhaps Wallace," says Lorraine Ali. "He appeared to have no Plan B in dealing with Trump, even though his employer Fox News knows the president better than any media outlet. At one point Wallace, son of the late 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, even attempted to placate Trump into silence. 'Mr. President, you’re going to be very happy,' he promised, teeing up a segment on 'law and order.'"
Don't blame Wallace -- there was no restraining Trump: "Many people will criticize how the moderator, Chris Wallace, managed the debate, and surely he could have done better," says David Frum. "But really, nothing short of a shock collar around Trump’s neck would have disciplined the man who is, after all, the president of the United States. A president who does not respect the tax laws, does not respect the FBI, is surely not going to be constrained by a debate moderator. It was pandemonium. But it was revealing pandemonium. Who and what Trump is could not have been more vividly displayed in all the psychological reality. Debate one was not Donald Trump versus Joe Biden, or red versus blue. It was zookeepers versus poop-throwing primates."
The Commission on Presidential Debates shouldn't have said there would be no fact-checking: Earlier this week, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr, the co-chair of The Commission on Presidential Debates, said on CNN there would be no fact-checking. "The minute the TV is off there will be plenty of fact checkers," he said. As Alex Shephard notes, "Trump, surely, was licking his chops. Wallace and the Commission surely understood that something like tonight’s train wreck was coming. Trump nevertheless treated them both like doormats; at some points Wallace was reduced to shouting, 'Mr. President, Stop.' No one seemed to have prepared for the likeliest of outcomes. In a way, this too was a kind of distillation: Wallace, the debate functionary and guardian of tradition, left alone to impotently plead with the president to hew to polite norms. Trump steamrolled all of this. The Commission on Presidential Debates and the next moderators may now want to consider an option where they can cut the president’s microphone, if only to reduce the number of lies and interruptions."
The debate commission should fix the presidential debates are cancel the rest of them: "The idea that two more like it are in the near future is simply unacceptable," says Margaret Sullivan. "The idea that either of the two coming moderators — Steve Scully of C-Span and Kristen Welker of NBC News — can hope to control things any better is a dubious one unless the format changes substantially. Debate Commission: It’s up to you now. Fix these debates or cancel them."