Shortly after moderator Chris Wallace declared the end of Tuesday night’s embarrassment of a first presidential debate, I texted a congressman who’s close to Joe Biden’s campaign. When you wake up tomorrow, I asked, what’ll be the first thing you remember from the one-and-a-half-hour pileup?
“1) just what a debacle that debate was because of Trump’s antics and the moderator’s refusal to enforce the rules,” he responded. And “2) Trump whiffing on refusing to condemn white supremacy” in part by telling the ‘Proud Boys’ hate group to ‘stand back and stand by.’”
As far as our democracy’s health is concerned, none of the Democratic insiders I spent the evening texting had anything positive to say when all was said and done in Cleveland — especially after the final exchange hinged on the president yet again calling into question the election’s legitimacy without evidence.
But in purely political terms, the Biden supporters saw little reason to complain. Biden, after all, has been leading Trump consistently for months, and the onus has long been on the president to fundamentally shift at least some Americans’ view of him. So, as the congressman texted just before the debate’s outset, “A tie is a win. Just do no harm. The goal is to be seen as the winner of course. But the reality is as long as nothing changes as a result of tonight then that’s good for the side that’s leading.”
Trump has “got to claw back some independent voters in swing states to be competitive, right?” one leading party operative who’s also very close with Biden’s team messaged shortly before Wallace welcomed the candidates onstage. “I don’t know personally how he would do that, but I guess I would be worried if he stayed on message with what sounded to the ear like pre-2016 Republican talking points for most of the night.”
You didn’t have to watch the debate to guess what happened next: Not that. But if you did watch, you saw a constant stream of interruptions from Trump, who seemed intent on cutting off Biden’s every argument, while the former vice-president talked straight to the camera, rarely engaging Trump’s provocations except to say, every once in a while, something like he did early on: “Will you shut up, man?” (“Loved it,” said the congressman. “It’s the kind of 5-second clip that can get replayed tmrw.” “You got to punch a bully in the mouth,” added a longtime Biden adviser.)
To be clear, none of the Democrats felt particularly good about the evening— there was little reason to actively celebrate what was happening onstage, though Biden’s campaign later said it raised nearly $4 million in the ten o’clock hour, the most it’s ever raised in an hour. “I’m a little surprised Biden was not ready for the interruptions?” said one top Democratic strategist who wanted to see more from Biden. “It’s exactly what Trump did in 2016 against Clinton. They didn’t watch the tape? There are 2 options — talk over [him] or demand moderator get control.” A few minutes later, he added, “Biden’s been halting and unsteady but never fell on his face.” And the operative pointed out, when Trump insisted his rallies were safe, “I don’t think Herman Cain agrees with the president here,” referring to the former presidential candidate who died of COVID-19 after attending Trump’s campaign event in Tulsa. So why didn’t Biden say that? “He’s a kinder man than I am.”
But the affair was disorganized and incoherent enough that they almost unanimously said there was no single moment that would stick out as a potential opinion-changer, let alone a campaign inflection point, aside from a few especially sour ones offered up by Trump, like his stark message to the white-supremacist group and his jarring, lacerating attack on Hunter Biden just as the Democratic nominee was remembering his deceased son, Beau. And if one Biden moment stuck out to them, it was his initial riff on the COVID-19 pandemic that’s devastated the country, but which was discordantly absent from much of the debate conversation. After Biden looked into the camera and addressed Americans who had lost loved ones to the virus or who’d been hit economically, the operative predicted: “The first 30 seconds of Biden on COVID is their ad tomorrow.” That was one of the few Biden monologues that Trump didn’t interrupt.
Yet the story of the evening to each of them was still the chaos, which none thought helped Trump’s cause. “What suburban voter gets won over by this?” asked the congressman, less than 15 minutes in, referring to Trump’s constant bulldozing of both Biden and Wallace. A few seconds later, the operative chimed in: “Trump’s goal has to be to get moderate and unaffiliated voters to be comfortable with him as president. He is making this chaotic enough that I don’t know how his performance could possibly do that.” Minutes later, the Biden adviser piled on: “You know what suburban women love? A bully who is constantly interrupting.”
That, after all, is the whole point now, with just over a month left and with early voting already under way in the central battleground states. “This election is a referendum on the incumbent president,” said the operative, echoing one of the Biden team’s central points, but also stating an undeniable reality so late in a race in which Trump’s in far-worse shape than any one of the last three incumbent presidents to seek reelection. “Americans came into tonight feeling anxious about a lot of things. This debate did not bring down the collective anxiety level. That is bad for the incumbent president, no matter who it is.”
About an hour into the proceedings — before Trump started referring to “crooked Hillary” and spread debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud — the congressman predicted, “I can’t possibly imagine this moving numbers.” He had a final thought about half an hour later, as the debate was winding down: “I regret not drinking.”