Historically, incumbent presidents don’t perform well in their first debates. Whether it’s lack of preparation because he’s busy being president, a sense of cockiness about the need to prepare, or underestimating his opponent, the challenger is usually declared the winner and the incumbent comes back stronger in round two.
But there’s never been an incumbent president like Donald Trump and there’s never been an opponent like Joe Biden. Expectations for Biden were so low – basement level, you might say – that he could’ve been declared the winner just by showing up, not falling asleep at the podium, and keeping his sniffer to himself.
In the highly anticipated first debate of 2020, the President and former Vice President met at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, for a contest moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. Experts predicted as many as 100 million Americans would tune in to watch the contest.
With only a small audience in attendance, the mood was decidedly different than any debate in memory. Debates don’t typically turn the tide in an election or even help voters make a decision, but anything is possible, especially in a year like 2020.
The Ground Rules
For Biden, whose slogan should be “I’m not Trump,” there was buzz that he might not even show up. He asked for two bathroom breaks to be scheduled during the 90 minute event. Whether he actually needs a bathroom break that frequently or he’d use it to be coached is a moot point since the Trump campaign refused the request. Biden also refused to submit to a drug test for performance-enhancing drugs; given his inconsistent behavior, the request was unsurprising. Worth noting: drug testing is mandatory for all federal employees.
Going for a trifecta of rejections, Biden declined an inspection of both men’s ears for any devices. Since it would give an advantage to either one, it would seem Biden would be eager to expose a bugged opponent, but he wouldn’t agree to it.
Topics of debate included: the Supreme Court, coronavirus, the economy, race and violence in American cities, each candidate’s record, and the integrity of the election.
The two candidates argued and talked over each other, with Wallace trying to pile on. Biden didn’t answer questions – in true politician style – by ranting and avoiding honing in on the question itself. Both candidates were combative and seemed to be out for blood.
Wallace struggled to maintain control of the conversation and interrupted Trump frequently. At one point, Biden grumbled, “Would you shut up, man?” to the President.
In the end, the debate was a free for all. Biden was sharper than expected, but rarely answered questions and looked confused and lost at times. Trump was focused, serious, and sharp, but he often struggled to get equal air time. Wallace seemed unable to control the strong personalities and their desire to be heard. Wallace also struggled – and failed – to sound unbiased and argued with Trump frequently, while giving Biden free passes.
The biggest losers in this round were the American people, who didn’t get an adequate, measured and neutral view of the candidates. Despite the questions and the moderator working against him, Trump still managed a strong showing and reminded voters why he’s the one in the Oval Office.
It’s only the beginning, though. Next Wednesday, October 7, Vice President Mike Pence will debate Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. The remaining presidential debates are on October 15 and 29.
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