Tuesday night’s debate was a surreal experience — and not in a pleasant way — from start to finish. I chatted with business columnist Josh Barro, politics editor Margaret Hartmann, and staff writer Sarah Jones about whether the 90-plus minutes of chaos did much, if anything, to change the shape of the presidential race.
Ben: So … what metaphor best describes the experience of watching this debate? Slow-motion car crash? Root canal?
Sarah: I think I said “ice-pick lobotomy with no anesthetic” in the Intel channel, and after some reflection, I’m sticking with it.
Josh: I guess I don’t think it was especially more painful or embarrassing than much of the last four years. I don’t know what else we should have expected.
Margaret: That’s … almost a positive reaction? I’ll take it.
Josh: But it was painful and I expect the next two will be essentially similar.
Sarah: I didn’t expect anything else, but the process of having my assumptions confirmed was painful.
Josh: Biden was fine, like he was in the primary debates. He didn’t need to do much.
Margaret: I felt like Biden was too low energy and rambly, but got in some good moments. I needed “I just won S.C.” Biden or convention-speech Biden to show up, and I got Sleepy Joe.
Ben: The expectations were indeed low, but he did seem to stumble out of the gate, in a way very familiar to watchers of last year’s primary debate — he had trouble getting words out, didn’t really challenge Trump on attacks. And there was the requisite liberal panic on Twitter before he improved. But is there any chance Trump actually HELPED his case here with his ungovernable antics and outrageous statements, which included a refusal to condemn white supremacy, more sowing of doubt on election integrity, and various gratuitous personal attacks aimed at Biden?
Margaret: I guess Trump seemed stronger? He was certainly the most controlling presence, but in the most dickish way possible.
Sarah: No, I don’t think so. His COVID response is remarkably unpopular, and he just doubled down on it tonight. It’s not going to win him any voters, and it especially isn’t going to win him the white suburban women he’s been losing in droves since 2016.
Margaret: Yeah, I don’t think white suburban women are turned on by incoherent bullying.
Josh: I think commentators consistently underrated the effectiveness of Biden’s performances in the primary because they overrated the importance of being polished or energetic. If voters wanted the most energetic candidate, they would have nominated Cory Booker. Biden comes across as fundamentally decent and calm, and that plays well. His favorables have been steadily climbing as he consolidates the party. And he does not gain by drawing attention to himself.
MSNBC liberals want to see Biden get in Trump’s face because they want someone to finally make him admit he is wrong. But you won’t make him admit he was wrong. The themes Biden returned to are ones that match voter perception — Trump lies, you can’t trust him, he doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t have plans. It’s the right way to run against an unpopular incumbent. Keep the focus on him.
Margaret: Millions watched this live, but I’ve been thinking about how this plays to the “low information” folks who are just catching snippets on the news in the coming days.
Sarah: There was nothing for low-information voters to grab onto — Trump just constantly interrupted Biden and … spewed. Like there’s no sound bite, no slogan.
Margaret: I think Biden has a huge advantage there because he had a number of rehearsed, coherent 30-second attacks on Trump that really landed.
Sarah: I really think the most telling moment for Trump tonight arrived during the election-integrity segment. He just collapsed. It was pure fever-swamp fantasy. He just cannot countenance a scenario where he does not win in November.
Margaret: Yeah, and that will be played next to Biden’s very clear “Vote and we can get rid of him, democracy still works” message.
Josh: I thought it was really interesting how Biden leaned into “You have the power.” Seemed responsive to research that expectations that elections will be rigged suppress turnout. He didn’t do panic-porn stuff.
Ben: Yeah, I thought that may have been his best moment.
Margaret: “It doesn’t matter because if we get the votes, it’s going to be all over, he’s going to go, he can’t stay in power, it won’t happen. It won’t happen. So vote. Just make sure you understand you have it in your control to determine what this country is going to look like the next four years.”
Ben: As mentioned, the debate largely consisted of Trump just shouting over both Biden and Chris Wallace, the moderator. Wallace came in for a lot of criticism for not being able to control things, and he certainly was steamrolled by the president several times. But really, is there a way to make this stuff watchable if Trump yells and interrupts constantly?
Josh: I don’t think it would have been possible to moderate this debate well. And I think Wallace actually sunk his nails into the agenda and kept them on topic more than a lot of other moderators would have. Letting them continue to talk over each other is always an option.
Margaret: There were times when I could not see how the debate could proceed. I actually thought, “What do they do now, just walk off stage and let Trump keep rambling?”
Sarah: It’s not going to be all that possible as long as moderators can’t cut the mics. I do think Wallace could’ve taken a stronger position, but yes, Trump makes it difficult.
Margaret: Yeah, I was getting a lot of “cut the mic” texts. The parts where Wallace and Trump started debating were pretty wild, though I guess I’ve just forgotten about some of Trump’s 2016 primary antics.
Josh: Steve Scully, who hosts a call-in show on C-SPAN, will moderate the next debate. It’s hard to imagine someone better qualified.
Margaret: That’s a relief.
Ben: And Harris-Pence next week is going to be refreshing by contrast.
Sarah: Not a high bar to clear.
Margaret: I actually think that will be insufferable as well, but in a different way.
Ben: Sure, but it won’t be 90 minutes of “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Margaret: Haha, true.
Ben: So do you expect polls to change in any direction after this in what has been generally an extremely stable race for several months now?
Sarah: I really doubt they will! Going into this, Biden didn’t have to do much to “win.” He just had to hold it together, and he mostly did; meanwhile, Trump had a grade-A meltdown. More than once. Which wasn’t enough to cost him 2016, sure, but he’s in power this time and his performance is unpopular.
Margaret: I think the pro-Trump people can say, “Well, he dominated and looked strong, while Biden was low energy.” Biden had some good moments for Democrats to highlight. But for most people I think it was just fucking exhausting — a good encapsulation of where we all are four years into the Trump administration. Maybe that makes more people turn to Biden because they’re sick of Trump, or maybe they just tune out entirely and decide not to vote.
Sarah: Right, Trump needed to excite people, not exhaust them, and I don’t think he managed it at all.
Margaret: I can’t imagine anyone pulling ahead in the polls or “winning” the debate. It was just a sad, embarrassing incident for the country.
Josh: If the election is a referendum on Trump, Trump loses. And Biden’s whole strategy, including at this debate, has been aimed at keeping this a referendum election, not a choice election. Biden did not need any breakthroughs; he needed to be like Matt Damon in Ocean’s 11: likable without being noticeable.