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An ugly debate

No clear winner emerges as Donald Trump and Joe Biden tussle

An ugly debate

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (AP Photos/Patrick Semansky)

Some news networks billed Tuesday night’s presidential debate as “the main event,” but it was more slugfest than thriller in Cleveland: President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden exchanged derision and disdain over 90 minutes filled with interruptions and insults as an exasperated moderator pleaded for order.

The candidates faced off for the first time after six months of the most untraditional presidential campaign in modern history. Trump entered the night as the presumable underdog, with a string of recent polls reporting he trailed Biden.

The question: Could Trump change that dynamic or persuade the sliver of voters who say they’re still undecided?

Biden went into the evening as the presumable front-runner, but also as the candidate with a different question mark: After a series of verbal gaffes and questions about his mental acuity, would Biden seem fit and ready to take on the job of the presidency?

Perhaps the most important question for both candidates: What would they have to say about policy?

Chris Wallace of Fox News moderated the debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Though Fox is known as a conservative network, Wallace is known for holding Trump’s feet to the fire, and he battled to live up to that reputation over a contentious hour-and-a-half.

The campaigns agreed to the terms in advance. The evening would consist of six 15-minute segments focusing on a single topic in each segment: the pandemic, the economy, the Supreme Court, the candidates’ records, election integrity, and race and violence in American cities. Each candidate would speak for two minutes, then the rest of the segment would be devoted to “open discussion.”

The plan devolved quickly.

The candidates constantly spoke over each other, with Wallace pleading with them to stop. At times, he sounded like a father ready to turn the car around and go home if the kids wouldn’t behave.

Trump often seemed to have the hardest time not interrupting his opponent: Wallace ended up telling him the country would be better served if they could hear from both candidates without interruptions.

The interruptions continued, and so did the insults: Trump said there was nothing “smart” about Biden. Biden called Trump a “fool.” Trump said Biden had accomplished less in 47 years of public life than Trump had accomplished in almost 47 months. Biden said Trump was the worst president the country ever had. The dynamic seemed to reflect the division and rancor in the nation, instead of modeling how to disagree in ways that are respectful and productive.

What about policy?

The debate often turned more on personality than policy, and it was hit-or-miss when it came to nitty gritty details about what the candidates would actually do.

A couple of notable moments: On the Supreme Court, Biden offered a glimpse of his strategy when it comes to Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Biden said he believed the nomination should be filled by whoever wins the election in November. But Biden didn’t go after Barrett personally.

He instead emphasized how the court might handle the Affordable Care Act in the coming weeks. (The court is set to hear arguments regarding the law’s legality the week after the election.) With healthcare, Biden narrowed in on an issue he likely thinks is in the forefront of many voters’ minds at the moment.

He did go on to mention Roe v. Wade and noted the president’s opposition to the abortion ruling. Biden said that would be an issue too, but it wasn’t his first line of offense.

When it came to some Democrats’ suggestion to expand the Supreme Court if Trump goes forward with Barrett’s confirmation against their wishes, Biden dodged the question.

When Wallace directly asked him whether he would expand the court and support ending the Senate filibuster, Biden replied: “Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue.”

In the past, Biden has said he opposed both moves, but he now seems to leave the door open.

Trump responded by seeking to tie Biden to the far left of his party. Many have already raised questions about how far left Biden would be willing to go, since he’s already moved further left on some policies since his campaign began. Biden’s response: “I am the Democratic Party right now.”

It was a curious response likely intended to assure voters they shouldn’t worry about others in the party who have pushed further left. But it may be a hard argument to make with a running mate who ran to Biden’s left for much of her own presidential bid.

The moderator also asked the candidates about race and violence in America, and Wallace pressed Biden on whether he had called on the mayors of roiling cities in Oregon to allow the National Guard help quell ongoing riots.

Biden replied: “I don’t hold public office now. I am a former vice president. I’ve made it clear. I’ve made it clear in my public statements that the violence should be prosecuted. It should be prosecuted. And anyone who commits it should be prosecuted.”

Wallace pressed: “But … you’ve never called for the leaders in Portland and in Oregon to call in, bring in the National Guard and knock off a hundred days of riots?”

Biden responded: “They can in fact take care of it if [Trump] just stays out of the way.”

This seemed like a notably weak spot for Biden. If voters are concerned about how he would handle rioting and unrest in American cities, they may have gone away without an answer.

President Trump was insistent about the need for law and order, but he faced his own moment of dodging an important question when Wallace asked him whether he would condemn white supremacy. Wallace noted Trump has criticized Biden for not calling out antifa and other left-wing groups: “But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups?”

Trump fumbled: “Sure, I’m willing to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. … I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”

Wallace replied: “Well then, do it, sir.”

Trump replied: “What do you want to call them? Give me a name. … Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a direct, this is a left-wing problem.”

Even if the president wanted to emphasize leftist groups are more responsible for the riots going on in American cities, it would have been simple and wise to say: Yes, I condemn white supremacy.

After a discussion on climate change, Wallace ended the debate by asking the candidates if they would pledge not to declare victory until after the election is independently verified.

Trump expressed his concerns over mail-in voting, and he emphasized how overwhelmed states’ voting systems might become when they receive an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots over the next few weeks.

That’s a valid concern, and it could mean we end up waiting a few days or even weeks to learn the outcome of the election, if it comes down to a close count in a swing state. Trump also talked about reports of mishandled ballots and his concerns about fraud in the system.

He left open the question of when he would be satisfied the results of the election were accurate after Nov. 3.

On a night without a scorecard, it seemed clear there wasn’t a winner. The battle was too uncivil to think of one candidate as triumphing. But Biden did show he could keep up with Trump and make the points he wanted to make. Trump showed he was digging in and reaching out to his base.

Whether or not either candidate won over voters during the contest, they do get two more chances: The pair will face off in two more presidential debates coming up in October.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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  • AlanE
    Posted: Wed, 09/30/2020 12:16 pm

    Is it possible that we, collectively, get so disgusted with both candidates that another, and credible, option emerges before election day? I hope so. But, I hoped so in 2016 as well. Didn't happen then.

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Wed, 09/30/2020 12:24 pm

    Since the DOJ has already investigated and found there was no evidence of White Supremacy groups infiltrating the "peaceful protestors", Chris Wallace's question needed clarification.  It was phrased as though White Supremacists were also responsible for the mayhem that has occurred during the protests and there is no evidence of that being true. 

    You might look at the Kenosha incident with 17 year old Kyle Rittenhouse as an example of White Supremacist activity, but reasonable accounts which include NPR, did not find this to be true.  He is a Blue Lives Matter supporter and responded to requests to help the police and was encouraged by the local police. While Blue Lives Matter might be an insult to BLM and its supporters, it is not an indication of advocacy of White Supremacist activity.   In every area where violence has broken out, the police have been greatly overpowered and hamstrung by local and state governments, making it next to impossible to achieve peace.  The vaccum created by this idiotic policy of not protecting businesses and citizens will be filled by something.

    Finally, the debate was a debacle and neither candidate shined.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Wed, 09/30/2020 01:44 pm

    World, I completely agree with your headline comment. It was a very sad day for America. President Trump is the president, and unfortunately, he set a very bad example of the "best" America has to offer. He took the lead in sinking the debate down to a new low. I am ashamed for our country, and as a voter, I feel disrespected. I'm looking forward to the vice-presidential debate. Perhaps as voters we will be able to hear some substance. This debate was a back alley brawl--extremely disappointing.

  • WA
    Posted: Wed, 09/30/2020 02:15 pm

    From the opening, it was clear that Donald Trump was going to have to debate the Democrat frontrunner, Chris Wallace, while the presumptive nominee looked on with sighs, grunts, insults, and pleas for help from the so-called moderator. Sadly, the President sank to their level and below it and blew multiple chances to beat 'em both. He made a few good points in the midst of the dumpster fire, but they were lost in the toddler tantrum that reigned throughout the night. 

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Wed, 09/30/2020 04:56 pm

    Why can't President Trump learn how to not be his own worst enemy?  His policies and decisions are actually quite good!  Maybe he can have his spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, take his place in the next two debates.  Come to think of it, maybe she can just take his place??? 

    Biden has so little to offer, and he would be swept aside by his running mate and his party's extremist progressives, but he still came out as well or better than Trump in the first debate. 

    A lot of the debate felt more like watching a fight between two elderly juveniles than two serious men who are prepared to lead the greatest and most blessed country on Earth.

  • DEBI
    Posted: Wed, 09/30/2020 07:28 pm

    About condemning white supremacists, Trump said, "Sure.  Sure, I'm willing to do that."  

    It is leftist groups who are responsible for the riots going on in American cities.  

    Trump is not a racist or a white supremacist or any of the other political names he has been given by the liberals/media.  

    As Lincoln said about Grant, "We can't spare this man.  He fights!"

  • BF
    Posted: Wed, 09/30/2020 11:52 pm

    Sadly, both candidates represent the nation well. Lying, bragging and brawling - we probably don't deserve a different option. 

  • Gregory P
    Posted: Thu, 10/01/2020 09:22 am

    Trump was probably surprised by the white supremacy question, because he has already condemned it several times in the past.  Neither did Chris Wallace hold Biden accountable for many lies.  It seems Trump would have done better to let Biden go on and stumble and ramble in his words and calmly point out Joe Biden's lies and mistatements and dodges sharply and concisely in the first part of his own subsequent 2 minutes segment.  Trump conveyed much more of his accomplishments and policies than did Joe Biden.  What did we learn of Joe Biden's policy: that he has a "plan" for handling the virus and stimulating the economy (buy American), and he's not really for the "radical Green New Deal," but rather his own ("the Biden deal")?  "Here's the deal."  But where is the substance?  Where are the details?  From what I have heard, reading the transcript gives more perspective.       

    Posted: Thu, 10/01/2020 01:31 pm

    Yes, the transcript gives more perspective. I watched the debate, and the transcriptionist(s) had quite a challenge. So there are times when [crosstalk] is inserted, and there are a few misspellings. Even so, I found the transcript definitely worth reading. (Click on one of the time stamps to view the video along with the transcript.)

    Posted: Thu, 10/01/2020 04:48 pm

    Why can't Dems stick with FACTS? Then let people vote based on the facts. Not fake news.

    Dems feel that Americans are too dumb to choose a Dem so they help with lies and filling ballot boxes. Trump isn't the only Pres. they cheated against and expected to win. Remember the hanging chads? And the military votes the Dems tried to cancel. Harry Reid lied and admitted it after he got the results he was hoping for. He said that his lies worked. 

  • Allen Johnson
    Posted: Thu, 10/01/2020 08:27 pm

    Clearly Trump set the tone of this travesty of a debate. He interjected in almost continual stream with interruptions and refutations and belligerancy when Biden was in his two minutes. And he disrespected the moderator, Chris Wallace, ignoring him and even challenging him.

    I am not a supporter of Biden. But no way can I countenance the bullying and rude Donald Trump. And Jamie Dean, your article tries to make it look like both candidates were equally wrong. Not so, Trump much worse. Biden's calling Trump a clown and so forth was during a lengthy Trump interruption of his talk.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 10/02/2020 02:46 am

    You are wrong Allen for Biden was the first to interrupt, where he did it three times. Trump them responded back. Biden was very insulting calling Trump a liar multiple times. Chris Wallace gave Biden softball questions while he really went after Trump. 

  • Janet B
    Posted: Fri, 10/02/2020 12:11 pm



  • Janet B
    Posted: Fri, 10/02/2020 12:08 pm

    Really, WORLD???

    "Trump fumbled."

    No, he didn't. He just didn't use the words Mr. Wallace wanted to hear.  I suspect that he was wondering why, once again, he is being asked to condemn white supremacy when he has answered that question multiple times, with specifics, for the last four years!

    Watch this video.  Watch from around minute 4:20 till around 8:40.

    It will show the deceit of the media, and specifically the questioner, as they insist that the question has not been answered, when it obviously has, many times, and for many years, the latest time by the President's Press Secretary in that room.  They just want to control the President by insisting that he say it exactly as they want him to, every time they ask.  

    He doesn't play.




  • DGKloost
    Posted: Sat, 10/03/2020 04:07 pm

    Jamie Dean--you do not seem to have paid much attention to the debate if you conclude that the outcome was hard to call.  Biden had to have the question repeated twice.  On other occasions He did not know what to answer Trump.  
    Some commentators are revealing the bias in the questioning by Chris Wallace.

    I'm very disappointed in your summary.