It was worse than I'd expected, which is really saying something. A mess, right out of the gate. It is genuinely difficult to produce a coherent analysis in the wake of those 90 pandaemonium-filled minutes -- which featured virtually no decorum whatsoever -- but I'll try anyway, because that's my job. Big picture, I'll direct you to the analysis I published Tuesday morning, previewing the evening's events. Here's part of it:
If nothing else [news cycles, world events, etc.] has disrupted the trajectory of this race, Joe Biden conceivably has an opportunity to come close to closing the deal tonight. The bar is very low. All he needs to do is perform... fine for 90 minutes (or even less, if people start to tune out after an hour or so) in the first head-to-head debate -- which I strongly suspect will be the most-watched, and holds the strongest potential to move the needle.
Click through for more of the context that informed that passage. If general acceptability and meltdown avoidance were the tests, Biden passed them. Thus, my verdict, tweeted as the spectacle concluded:
Well, that was bad. Hard to organize thoughts after that chaos, but bottom line: Biden’s overall goal was to look like an acceptable alternative for voters who are exhausted by Trump & want a change. I suspect he succeeded. He’s already leading. So he won the night.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) September 30, 2020
Trump was belligerent throughout the night, peppering nearly every exchange with incessant interruptions. Hardcore supporters will call that approach needed and appropriate aggressiveness. Those who aren't in that camp will likely see it rather differently, including a significant number of not-fully-decided Biden leaners. Trump's supporters will allege that the moderator seemed far more keen on pinning Trump down, and rarely followed up with pointed challenges to Biden. They have a case there, although presiding over that surreal debacle looked like an unenviable and quixotic task from the outset. Even when Chris Wallace -- a Fox colleague whom I respect -- actually was pushing Biden on something, Trump insisted on inserting himself into the back-and-forth, clouding the moment. One instance that comes to mind involved the former Vice President's extremely weak answer on riots, claiming that he didn't intervene with his fellow Democrats to put an end to violent unrest because he's not currently an elected official. But he'd said earlier in the evening that at this moment in time, he is the Democratic Party, as Wallace noted. This was a pitiful cop-out, especially when he went on to claim that local Democrats in Portland could have taken care of the problem if Trump hadn't intervened. A ludicrous falsehood. Biden's denialism on Antifa was also bad and unserious.
Relatedly, because it's gotten a lot of attention, I'll add my view that Trump's word salad on white supremacists was maddeningly typical. The president averred several times that yes, he would condemn right-wing extremists during crosstalk, then ended up leaning on the feeble verbiage that such groups should "stand back and stand by," which sounded like something quite different from a clear condemnation. I'd wager that Trump was irked by the false equivalence between far-left-dominated violence America's the streets, and the far-right's occasional contributions to it. He rightly pushed back on that. But along the way, he ended up mired in familiar, murky territory -- in which his supporters have some evidence to say the desired disavowal happened, while his critics have other evidence to contend it didn't. Even if one thinks the challenge was unfairly premised, and I think it partially was, the president's response on that particular point should have left no room for ambiguity. But here we are again.
Another glaring cop-out from Biden was on court-packing. This is an important question that the Democratic ticket has been clumsily dodging for days. His initial evasion was entirely expected, so his feet needed to be held to the fire with tough follow-ups. That didn't happen, though Trump made an effort. Biden's go-to answer (basically, that the question is a distraction, and people just need to vote) is hazy nonsense. He's asking the American people, including millions of moderates, to give him power -- in the name safeguarding norms and institutions -- while steadfastly refusing to say what he'd do with that power on a critical question pertaining to norms and institutions. That's unacceptable. It should have been treated as such. I will point out, however, that Biden was already referring to Amy Coney Barrett as a "justice," a telling slip. Elsewhere, I think Trump scored points on COVID lockdowns, on which Biden's messaging was disjointed, contradictory, and fact-challenged:
Trump making an important point about the very serious impacts of shutdowns — not just on the economy but on people’s health & well being.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) September 30, 2020
Trump is painting Biden as the candidate of lockdowns and lockdown-related pain, and Biden is making little effort to rebut this.— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) September 30, 2020
Biden, who said he'd shut down economy for months, is now blaming Trump for shutting down the economy.— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) September 30, 2020
Will this issue draw some political blood, or did other COVID-related squabbles cancel out what seemed to be a clear advantage for the incumbent on that front? Biden's answers were also weak and mushy on the economy, and filled with magical thinking. Several of his proposed policies would be harmful, and Trump tried to make that case, with mixed effectiveness. On the environment, Biden swore off the truly insane and ruinous Green New Deal, but his own campaign website praises it as a 'crucially' important framework for climate change solutions. Biden's defenders will argue that it's still separate from his plan, but part of the Trump case against Biden is that he's getting co-opted by the far-left of the party, is constantly compelled to appease them, and won't stand up to them when push comes to shove:
Biden was frequently evasive and mealy-mouthed on policy. Perhaps that's because he doesn't want people to know how left-wing his administration would be. Perhaps it's because he's trying to please a broad coalition and doesn't want to upset any of its elements. Perhaps it's because he's making an conspicuous effort to win this election by default and therefore does not want to make any news. Perhaps its a combination of all of the above. But if you came away from that debate with the distinct impression that he's hiding his intentions while running out the clock, you're not alone. That's precisely what he's doing. And it may just succeed. We'll know soon enough.
Finally, it seems to me that last night was a microcosm of the wider race. Here's the dynamic: Biden wants the attention on Trump, and for his part, Trump cannot help but constantly remain the in-your-face center of attention. What Trump needed last night was for Biden to hurt himself in a real damaging "moment," of which Biden is more than capable. But Trump didn't give Biden any proverbial "rope" -- time and space -- with which to hang himself. He just couldn't stop talking, interjecting, and jabbing, sucking up the oxygen at every turn. I can't imagine Team Joe was too disappointed by that; it's their whole strategy. For what it's worth, this snap CBS News poll shows a seven-point plurality of debate watchers calling Biden the winner, with ten percent calling it a tie:
.@SalvantoCBS has results from CBS News instant poll of people who watched the first Biden-Trump debate:— CBS News (@CBSNews) September 30, 2020
-83% said the tone was "negative"
-69% said debate made them feel "annoyed"
-48% said Biden won, and 41% said Trump won #debates2020 https://t.co/a7VWn5npT9 pic.twitter.com/ZYHwVFS7s6
That's hardly a disastrous result for Trump, but a mid-to-high single-digit deficit for the incumbent is starting to feel awfully familiar, isn't it? Again any outcome that more or less maintains the status quo is tantamount to a victory for the candidate in the lead, hence my bottom line conclusion above.