I spent the better part of seven years of my life researching and writing about presidential debates in order to create and complete my doctoral dissertation. I say not with bravado but with dispassionate accuracy that I probably know more about American presidential debates than 99.9 percent of the population. And so, for this particular article, I wear only my presidential historian’s hat, which means I leave any biases toward particular presidential candidates at the doorstep.
The first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took place on September 29, with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace serving as the sole moderator. I only know of two human beings who surely have watched every single major party presidential and vice presidential debate more often than I have. They are Newton Minow, the Father of Presidential Debates, and Alan Schroeder, the foremost contemporary debate scholar (and an examiner of my dissertation). And so, in my professional opinion, I can safely say that Trump-Biden 1 was the worst MPPD (Major Party Presidential Debate) I have ever seen.
Virtually from start to finish, Trump controlled the narrative: he turned the debate into a no-holds-barred, no-rules-respected barnyard brawl, leaving Biden and Wallace helplessly looking on, unable to stop the madness.
Trump’s purposeful plan to present himself as the worst caricature of himself presumably was intended to produce two results: 1) keep Trump as topic of discussion; and 2) make Biden look weak, even as it caused him to elicit sympathy.
Most people are simply not wired like Donald Trump; they do not thrive on controversy. If anything, they try to be liked, not disliked. Trump, however, lives by the credo: bad publicity is better than no publicity. Simply put, he’d rather have folks at the dinner table talking about what a jerk he is than not talking about him at all.
Moreover, central to Trump’s strategy against Biden is to make the former VP seem old and weak. And if that means bullying and berating him simply to point out how he can’t hit back, then Trump will happily take the risk of alienating undecided voters who would like to see him act more presidential.
Historically, that type of behavior works more often than not in presidential debates; the gentleman is often the loser. Those unfamiliar with the debates in great detail might assume, based on their personalities, that Richard Nixon in his series of 1960 debates against John Kennedy was the aggressor. Quite the opposite; it was Kennedy who pointed his finger at Nixon and peppered a barrage of questions and accusations, while Nixon was perennially deferential. In 2008, Barack Obama was so meek against John McCain that moderator Jim Lehrer actually encouraged him to be more aggressive. But poor Chris Wallace in 2020 seemed like he needed a double Scotch a third of the way through the debacle. Granted, Wallace disappointed as a moderator insofar as he didn’t differentiate between the probing, piercing questioning he has perfected on his Fox News show and the exclusively facilitation mode in which he needs to remain all debate night long. When Trump said to Wallace: “I guess I’m debating you, not him, but that’s okay. I’m not surprised,” it helped him advance the perception that Biden is weak and slow on the uptake.
Nonetheless, Trump took a huge gamble. He seriously needs to garner more support among women, and traditionally, women have been a voting bloc that has preferred – if not insisted – on a compassionate president. They don’t like a bully, and Trump surely bullied Biden. Then again, do people want a president (in Biden) who can be bullied? Perhaps the best anti-bullying moment in debate history was George W. Bush in his 2000 Town Hall debate against Al Gore: Gore crowded Bush and tried to talk over him. Rather than succumb to the encroachment, Bush squared his body and gave him a crisp nod, making Gore look ridiculous as Bush blew him off like the guy in the bar with a corny line who walks up to the pretty lady. Biden didn’t have such a moment.
Ironically, Biden himself was a bully against Paul Ryan in their 2012 vice presidential debate. Biden often flashed a smug wide grin when Ryan spoke. Had Ryan simply turned to him at one point and said: “Sir, are you drunk?” he would’ve stolen the show. But he didn’t, and so Biden won that debate, by attrition.
The other takeaways from the first debate are that Trump refused to condemn white supremacists on the spot, and Biden said “I am the Democratic Party,” and also refused to disavow the concept of packing the Supreme Court beyond nine justices. That may be an easy recoup for Trump, who can simply disavow white supremacists next time, as he has done many times before. Biden, however, will be in quite the pickle if pressed to take a stance on packing the court.
Winning a debate is not based on whether the viewer agrees with a particular point of view. For instance, pro-choicers or pro-lifers can’t say “my candidate won” because s/he took one of those two stances in the debate. Winning debates is about helping oneself. In this case, Trump may have helped himself more by controlling the narrative. On the other hand, most Americans no longer care about foreign policy, so they don’t really worry about having a tough president on the world stage. They just might prefer the compassionate guy who’s slowed a few steps.
As of this writing, Trump is recovering from COVID-19. If that causes the second debate to be canceled, then Trump will have one final chance to accomplish an almost-necessary feat: to trip up Biden to the point that the American people would wonder whether he’s fit for office. He gave it a good shot in the first debate, but it wasn’t nearly enough.