POLITICS

5 Takeaways From The First 2020 Presidential Debate Between Trump And Biden

The biggest moment may have been what Trump refused to say.

The only difference between Tuesday night’s debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump and a train wreck was that many Americans were able to ― and likely did ― look away from the debate. 

Trump spent almost the entire debate interrupting both moderator Chris Wallace and Democratic rival Biden, which he mixed with lying about both his and Biden’s positions, wrapping it up with a refusal to condemn white supremacists and repeated attacks on Biden’s family.  

Biden responded by occasionally confronting Trump and sometimes treating him as, to use Biden’s words, “a clown” who deserved only scorn and eye-rolling. His efforts to engage in substance were often met by interruptions from Trump, who was only sporadically kept in check by Wallace’s admonishments. 

The overall result was nothing short of a condemnation of American political culture, which did relatively little to inform Americans further about how either candidate would solve the numerous crises facing the country today. Trump created the mess, which was unlikely to help him climb out of his polling deficit against Biden.   

Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump meet at the first 2020 presidential debate Tuesday at
Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump meet at the first 2020 presidential debate Tuesday at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.

One of the lowest moments of the 90 minutes came toward the end of the debate, when Trump unleashed a string of lies about mail-in voting, falsely claiming it would lead to fraud as he sowed doubt about the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 election. 

And all of this, at least according to the instant polls that news networks conducted of people who watched the debate, did almost nothing to change the minds of voters. 

Here are four additional takeaways from an absurd and messy debate. 

What Trump Didn’t Say Might Matter Most

If there was a newsmaking moment across the hour and half, it was Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist violence, a moment reminiscent of his infamous “both sides” comments following a violent white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017. After twice claiming he was willing to condemn white supremacist groups, Trump didn’t actually follow through.

“Who do you want me to condemn?” Trump asked Biden and Wallace.

“The Proud Boys,” Biden responded. 

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said. “But I’ll tell you what. Somebody has to do something about antifa and the left. This is not a right-wing problem.”

The moment is likely to only lead to further questions about Trump’s affinity for racists, which is unlikely to help either the Trump campaign’s efforts to peel away Black and Latino voters from Democrats or with Trump’s efforts to repair his standing among white women, who are frequently disgusted by the president’s uncouth behavior. 

And for low-information voters who did not watch the debate, it’s likely to be one of the only clips they see from Tuesday night. 

Trump’s campaign staffers seemed to realize their bosses’ error, quickly sending out clips of Trump condemning racism in the past, including “7 Examples of President Trump Condemning the KKK.”

Trump Thinks Biden Has A Problem With The Left

Trump repeatedly suggested Biden was unwilling to adopt centrist positions for fear of alienating his left flank, including at one point bizarrely challenging him to say the words “law and order.” Biden quickly said he believed most law enforcement officers were good people.

At another point early in the debate, Biden reiterated his opposition to a “Medicare for All” plan after Trump accused him of supporting one. 

“You just lost the left,” Trump said. 

Trying to drive a wedge between Democratic establishment candidates and their party’s left wing is not a new tactic from Trump. He deployed it regularly in 2016 against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and has occasionally hit Biden in a similar fashion. But Biden’s problems with supporters of progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been significantly lower profile, and less electorally significant, than Clinton’s were four years ago. 

Trump will likely make further efforts to dampen Democratic enthusiasm as Election Day nears. So far, Democrats have mostly worried about Trump attempting to discourage Black voters, but this could be a sign his campaign also intends to discourage young people and progressives more broadly from casting ballots for Biden. 

Biden Wins A Draw

Biden is winning in public polling, both nationally and in the swing states. The election is far from over, and Trump’s strength among white voters without college degrees means he will have a chance to triumph again in the Electoral College without winning the popular vote. 

But the president needs to make up ground with senior citizens, women and college-educated white voters, and almost nothing suggests he did so on Tuesday night. Biden automatically wins by not losing. 

That’s not to say Biden’s performance was perfect. He lacked energy at times early in the debate, and he occasionally tripped over his words, at one point accidentally implying he supports the Green New Deal.

Biden’s best moments came when defending his family, including discussing his son Hunter’s drug problem and angrily insisting his son Beau was not a “loser” for serving as a military lawyer in Iraq.

Are Changes Coming To The Debates?

In a post-debate call with reporters, Biden’s campaign said the candidate would show up at the next two debates, scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami and Oct. 22 in Nashville. But they also said discussions with the Commission on Presidential Debates were “ongoing.”

“I would imagine there would be some additional conversations,” Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield said.

Trump’s constant interruptions clearly overwhelmed Fox News anchor Wallace, and it’s unclear if there was anything he or any moderator could have done to keep the president in check. The Biden campaign is almost certain to push to have moderators take a more assertive role in the remaining debates. The Trump campaign is likely to resist.

Robert Gibbs, who was President Barack Obama’s first White House press secretary, suggested the commission needed to give moderators the power to cut off the candidate’s mics.