On Tuesday, Sept. 29, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Donald J. Trump met at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University for the first presidential debate of the 2020 general election. This election has been marked by — among other things — the COVID-19 pandemic, demands for racial justice and a rapidly unfolding Senate confirmation hearing in the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death.
Despite the stakes, few had high expectations for the debate. According to a recent Wall Street Journal and NBC News poll, 70 percent of voters said the debate would “not matter much to them” and 44 percent — the highest proportion since the George Bush-Al Gore presidential race — indicated that it would not impact their voting choice at all.
Still, Tuesday’s debate managed to surprise viewers: As CNN’s Dana Bash pointed out, “it was a shitshow.”
“That was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a trainwreck,” added CNN’s Jake Tapper. “That was the worst debate I have ever seen. In fact, it wasn’t even a debate — it was a disgrace.”
Bash and Tapper’s visceral reactions came largely in response to the lack of decorum throughout the debate. The foremost of these was Trump’s frequent interruptions during Biden’s designated speaking time. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who moderated the debate, also struggled to make his voice heard, as Trump repeatedly interjected before Wallace could finish his questions.
Though at moments, Biden gave in to Trump’s goading — calling him “the worst president America has ever had” and once exclaiming, “Will you shut up, man?” — Biden was generally careful not to play the President’s game. In the few moments when policy was the center of discussion, Biden appeared focused, whether on issues of climate change or the New York Times’ bombshell report on the President’s tax returns, the contents of which Trump openly denied.
The President, notably, declined to condemn the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group, despite prompting from Wallace, instead telling them to “stand back and stand by.”
Equally significant was his reassertion that he will not accept election results he deems fraudulent, and his refusal to promise not to declare victory before all ballots were counted.
The second presidential debate will take place on Oct. 15 in Miami. The structure of all debates will be altered to address some of this debate’s disarray, according to a Wednesday afternoon announcement from the Commission on Presidential Debates.