Where do you start here? Are you furious as an American that our political discourse has come to this? Are you angered that Chris Wallace was completely in the tank for the Democrats? Were you embarrassed to watch two grown men squabbling like kids in the backseat of a car? Are you shell-shocked after watching that confused melee?
All of the above and more seems to be the reaction from this analyst and a wide swath of the American people. The Tuesday night presidential debate in Cleveland was a debacle, a manurefest, an absolute dog’s breakfast. Very few voters were convinced of anything in regards to a presidential choice and both sides came off badly. Biden lied on every topic. The president was too defensive and showed none of his usual charm and easy confidence.
But the worst was the moderator. Chris Wallace did a disservice to the country by his anti-Trump bias and his horrible mismanagement of the debate. From no opening or closing statements to rescuing Biden more than once, Wallace confirms his place as a disgrace to journalism. In effect, the president had to debate two opponents.
'Trump War Room' says debate moderator Chris Wallace
interrupted President Trump 76 times, only interrupted Biden 15 times.
— Josh Caplan (@joshdcaplan) September 30, 2020
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As for the result, it was a wash. But Biden was clear and coherent, thus winning the expectation game. He came off personally better, more upbeat and audience friendly. He scored on Trump’s taxes, paried the president’s hit on his family, and emphasized the trust issue. He lost on law and order, the economy, and his left wing, as the president pointed out, will not like his answer on the Green New Deal. His class warfare attack fell flat.
The president hit Biden hard and had him reeling at times, especially on law and order and Antifa. Trump won on Barrett, Covid-19, and taxes and spending. But Trump lost many opportunities to hit Biden effectively because he was so intent on getting the last word. The president was dour and almost bitter at times. He seemed to be shrouded in a perpetual frown. Gone was the playful sarcasm of 2016 against Hillary. In its place was a man bereft of the audience feedback that gives him rhetorical sustenance. With an audience a debate seems like a gladiatorial contest, given audience enthusiasms. Without it the loud guy just seems loud.
The president also missed an opportunity he rarely misses. He didn’t strongly attack Wallace. Wallace’s bias was so obvious Trump should have gone after him with a bayonet to the gut. But he generally let it slide and spent more of the evening taking bait from Wallace and Biden than he did establishing his own message or giving swing voters a reason to vote for him, not just against Biden.
Marshall McLuhan said that television is a cool, as in low intensity, medium that does not give leadership points for overreactions. After all, you’re talking to people in their living rooms and nobody wants to be yelled at in their living room. Or for that matter, few want to be taken for a fool who will believe stock answers absent of accuracy. Most also will not give a rigged event the credibility of a fair exercise in debate.
Both sides, and especially the moderator, violated those rules tonight. Biden lied, Trump was too Trump, and Wallace’s biased behavior was a mockery of the concept of a fair and open debate. The dial did not move to a great degree towards or away from either candidate. But it did move to a more severe polarization of the American people and to a realization of how childish and petty presidential debates have become.