President Trump’s main objective in the first presidential debate was to rattle Joe Biden. He interrupted constantly, he made repeated personal attacks on Hunter Biden, and he attempted to make Biden stammer. His belligerence was a tactical success but a strategic failure. Trump allowed Biden to define both Trump and himself far more effectively and concretely.
In theory, Trump’s approach made sense. The biggest concerns swing voters had about Biden were mental fitness/age and being controlled by the radical left:
Trump’s style was designed to make Biden appear weak and ideally trigger a meltdown. His substance was intended to define Biden as a tool of the radical left.
Trump completely controlled the pace and style of the debate but in a way that ultimately backfired. Trump’s plan to rattle Biden did have some success. He constantly forced Biden to stop and start, losing the momentum of his prepared answers. At times Biden seemed overwhelmed by the stream of invective and lies, unsure which point to drive home.
Substantively, Trump began the debate with what resembled a plan to link his opponent to the far left of the Democratic Party. But Biden was well prepared to parry Trump’s attacks. “I am the Democratic Party now,” he said, “The platform is what I approved.” Biden affirmed his support for law and order, twice reminding the audience violent crime decreased under the Obama-Biden administration. Trump slipped into his habit of talking like a political commentator and sneered, “You just lost the left” — seeming to undermine the conclusion Trump was attempting to drive home.
But Trump lost this plot early on, instead returning either to attacks on Hunter Biden — failing to explain why Biden’s ne’er-do-well son’s failings or greed would impact peoples’ lives — or reiterating his litany of complaints. Trump’s almost desperate attempts to rattle Biden threw himself off any strategy, like a losing boxer in the 15th round hurling wild haymaker punches.
In the chaos, Biden succeeded in driving home more popular messages about both himself and his opponent. He attacked Trump’s plan to repeal Obamacare and throw 20 million people off their insurance. Biden argued for wearing masks and noted that Trump’s own scientists said it would save 100,000 lives. That is a popular stance — three-quarters of the public supports a mask requirement. Trump replied by mocking Biden for wearing masks too often and absurdly said he uses social distancing at his rallies because he can’t draw a crowd. This follows Trump’s internal logic as a television-ratings obsessive but has no bearing on the public’s concern about the pandemic.
During the exchanges on race and policing, Biden often spoke haltingly and was unable to muster the elegance he has achieved in his scripted speeches. But he did succeed in getting across basic points: He believes racism is bad, he thinks most cops are good, he wants to bring civil-rights leaders and police together and bring changes. He repeatedly described Trump as a racist and an ally of Nazis and white supremacists.
Trump, for his part, dismissed the opportunity to refute the charge by renouncing white supremacists. Instead, he turned the question to antifa. His apparent belief is that he can link his opponent to a band of youthful anarchists (who in fact hate Biden) more effectively than Biden can link him to right-wing extremists who visibly adore the president. His calculation is very likely wrong.
The final subject of the debate centered on the legitimacy of the election. Biden did not articulate an Obama-like defense of democracy. What he did was to get across his gut-level belief in popular sovereignty. He urged people to vote. He promised them their votes would determine the outcome. He pledged to honor it.
Trump ended the debate having sucked himself so completely into his vortex of self-pity that his message was unrecognizable to anybody but a Fox News addict. “As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster,” he said. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.” Ominously, he warned, “This is not going to end well.” It was as if Trump realized he was losing and his desperate gamble to shake up the race by tearing into his opponent had failed.
Because of the ugly, ragged tone, Biden was unable to consistently sound good. But electoral politics is a zero-sum contest. Biden was able to sound better than his opponent — more sensible, more fair-minded, more presidential. Trump did everything to bring his opponent down to his level. It was not the former vice-president’s most inspiring performance. Measured against the man he faced, though, Biden soared.