As little as anyone can seem to agree on these days, one thing that liberals, conservatives and independent observers alike said was abundantly clear after the first presidential debate on Tuesday night was that there were no winners. America lost, they said.
On NBC, Lester Holt called the evening “a low point in political discourse.”
A top Republican strategist, Russ Schriefer, asked: “Seriously — if there weren’t any more debates, would that be a problem? Anyone served by this mess?”
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a former Democratic presidential candidate, sounded despondent in his assessment: “America was the world’s leading democracy. Then this happened. Now what?”
Most of the political professionals and pundits watching said the 90 minutes of bickering, interrupting and shouting was an unbearable affair that had further exhausted the patience of a weary and beleaguered nation.
The near unanimity of the sentiment about the debate overall did not entirely extend to judgments about the performances of the two candidates, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Though there were critics of the president’s domineering behavior among some of his usual defenders on the right, others insisted that his low blows against his opponent’s family were just what the Republican base wanted to hear. Here is a sampling of what political experts had to say about the more memorable moments of the night.
Biden seemed to speak for a wide array of the viewing audience when he snapped in exasperation at the president’s repeated interruptions, telling him, “Will you shut up, man?”
“‘Will you shut up, man?’ – Joe Biden, speaking for…most Americans” — Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama
“‘Will you shut up, man’ might be Biden’s Gettysburg Address.” — Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic
Biden also won bipartisan praise for the way he attacked Trump’s record, including, in one of the more poignant moments, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?” Biden said, laying the more than 200,000 deaths from the virus in the United States at Trump’s feet. “How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn’t even speak to them — you had to have a nurse holding the phone up so you could say goodbye?”
Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, said that Biden was “scoring points” with his criticism of the president’s coronavirus response.
But Biden’s inability to compete with the unbridled force of Trump’s desire to be heard — not just over Biden but over Chris Wallace of Fox News, the moderator — left some doubting his effectiveness and asking whether he might skip the next two debates.
Just 41 minutes into the debate, Matt Gorman, who has worked for Jeb Bush, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Mitt Romney, pointed out, “We’re not even halfway done.” Later, Gorman said: “I honestly think Biden will pull out of the other debates. These 90 minutes were a microcosm of the last three years. Trump dominated the airtime and overpowered the discussion.”
Many pundits measured Trump’s performance the way they consider most of his confrontational and controversial moments in public: by asking whether it had hurt or helped with his base. Undoubtedly, the disrespect he displayed toward Biden — with the constant interruptions and personal attacks on his family — delighted many of his most ardent supporters.
Kimberley Strassel, a pro-Trump columnist for The Wall Street Journal, said the performance was a hit with the president’s supporters and listed the many issues that would resonate with them that he mentioned. “On this, Trump wins,” she said. “He was consistent, and made the points that he is running on in this election — law/order; economy; D corruption in terms of FBI investigation/Hunter; handling of virus.”
Brit Hume, the Fox News analyst, said on television that with his peevish presence, Trump was “like a bucking bronco,” and added, “I’m not sure that people at home would find that all appealing.”
The base calculation fails to account for the many Americans, some of whom voted for Trump in 2016, who are tired and demoralized after four years of his constant, noisy presence in their lives.
Neil Newhouse, a leading Republican pollster, was barely a half-hour into the debate when he said: “I’m exhausted. Have voters turned this off yet?”
Other conservatives took issue with aspects of the Democrats’ criticisms of Trump that the president’s supporters find especially irritating, such as Biden’s comments about the president’s refusal to denounce white supremacists like those who demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017.
Ben Shapiro, the conservative podcast host and author, objected to the idea that Trump was more morally compromised than some Democratic presidents, saying: “Woodrow Wilson screened ‘Birth of a Nation’ at the White House. FDR interned hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans. Bill Clinton used the Oval Office as a harem. Try again.”
Still, there were some who pointed out the possibility that the debate had helped neither candidate and had actually depressed voters.
Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, who was conducting a focus group of debate viewers on Tuesday night, said: “This debate has actually convinced some undecided voters to not vote at all. I’ve never seen a debate cause this reaction.”