What did we see Tuesday night? It wasn't a debate by any stretch of the imagination. No one really learned anything during that 90-minute playground fight. It did not sway anyone who was undecided, except maybe away from the polls. And if it signaled anything, it's that another sacred cow (the presidential debate) probably can never be the same again. One commentator suggested it was the official moment of the "end of our democracy."
How bad was it?
Well, all day Wednesday, Republicans distanced themselves from Donald Trump over his failure to condemn white supremacists and for putting out a rallying cry for the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has endorsed violence.
Trump addressed the issue, retreating from his debate night comments that the Proud Boys should “stand by.” Speaking to reporters as he left the White House for a campaign trip to Minnesota, he said: “I don’t know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”
Unsurprisingly, the president’s words prompted celebration by members of the Proud Boys. Social media was aflame all night and day.
Meanwhile, while campaigning, the president claimed victory for the debate, saying he had made Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden look foolish on the stage.
He reiterated that it is actually left-wing violence that is “the real problem.”
The real problem for American voters is that with ballots in the mail and the General Election mere weeks away, we are fearful and uncertain.
Tuesday's brawl did not assuage anyone (except the Proud Boys).
From the first minute of the debate, the mood was acrimonious. And when the debate ended, neither man came to the middle to shake hands out of respect for the process or the discussion. Probably because there never was one. It was the least debate-like debate in the history of debates.
The Associated Press described it thusly:
For sure, Trump is no stranger to going on offense, but his pugilistic approach on stage left his Democratic opponent fighting to complete a sentence.
Trailing in public and private polling, Trump advisers have pushed him to reframe the election away from a referendum on his presidency to a choice between him and Biden. Trump, instead, commandeered the debate, trying to trip up Biden by interrupting and insulting him. In the process, Trump made the debate more about himself.
“There’s nothing smart about you,” Trump said of Biden. “47 years you’ve done nothing.”
While Trump played into his reputation as a bully, it may have been effective at breaking up the worst of Biden’s attacks — simply by talking over them.
Trump aides believed before the debate that Biden would be unable to withstand the withering offensive in style and substance from Trump, but Biden came back with a few retorts of his own, calling Trump a “clown” and mocking Trump’s style by asking, “Will you shut up, man?”
Unfortunately, there are two more debates. Fortunately, organizers, advisers and the campaigns are working hard to make sure Tuesday's circus (we can't use the other words we want to use because this is a family newspaper) does not happen again.
The Commission on Presidential Debates said on Wednesday that it would make changes to the format of this year’s remaining debates.
“Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the commission, a bipartisan nonprofit that has organized the debates since 1987, said in a statement. “The C.P.D. will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”
Among the recommendations: Shut off the other candidate's microphone.
Although the commission did not go into detail about the changes it was considering, there were widespread calls on Wednesday for moderators to be granted the power to cut off a candidate’s microphone.
The internet lambasted moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, while members of the commission praised him “for the professionalism and skill” he brought to the occasion.
In our minds the only thing that was said Tuesday night that mattered actually came from Wallace, when he pointed out to both candidates that instead of fighting and bickering, the American people might benefit from hearing their positions.
You know? A debate?