There has never been a presidential debate like it. Hopefully, there never will be again.
And it ended with President Donald Trump again refusing to commit to accepting the Nov. 3 election results, acknowledging that, if there are ballot questions, he was “counting on them (the Supreme Court) to look at the ballots.”
From the outset, Tuesday night’s 90-minite nationally televised confrontation in Cleveland was a brawl unbefitting the presidency, “a pure train wreck,” as NBC’sChuck Todd put it.
Trailing in the polls, President Donald Trump’s strategists recognized he needed to be the aggressor against rival Joe Biden and he was, often running roughshod over not only his opponent but moderator Chris Wallace, who gamely sought to maintain order.
Biden struggled somewhat to assert himself at first, but gradually gained his footing, unleashing some sharp verbal rejoinders along with his planned criticism of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues.
If Trump’s goal was to show that the 77-year-old Biden was a man of diminished mental capacity, unfit for the presidency, he failed to do so, while living up to his Democratic rival’s advance characterization of him as a bully.
Afterwards, there was no sign Trump had done anything to narrow Biden’s lead.
“The president overplayed his hand tonight,” former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum said on CNN. “It was a missed opportunity.” “It was too hot,” agreed Trump adviser Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, on ABC.
“Trump needed to really change the dynamics tonight and I think he really reinforced the dynamics,” said fellow CNN analyst David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama.
The debate displayed as much invective as answers. “You’re the worst president America has ever had,” Biden declared. Responded Trump: “In 47 months, I’ve done more than you’ve done in 47 years.”
“Everybody knows he’s a liar,” Biden said. “Joe, you’re the liar,” retorted Trump.
Some of the sharpest exchanges came over health care and the CONVID-19 pandemic. Trump predictably said the Democratic Party’s left wing would dominate Biden, declaring, “You’re going to socialist medicine.”
“Right now, I am the Democratic Party,” Biden replied, noting he defeated self-styled socialist Bernie Sanders.
“Obamacare is no good,” Trump insisted. “We made it better,” prompting Biden to reply, “this man doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and note he never developed his promised new health plan.
At one point, Trump derided Biden for wearing a mask whenever he is in public. “He could be speaking 200 feet away from him and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen,” the president said.
“Well, masks make a big difference,” Biden replied, noting that the head of Trump’s Centers for Disease Control said “if everybody wore a mask between now and January, we’d probably save up to 100,000 lives.”
Citing Trump’s mass rallies, he accused the president of being “totally irresponsible in the way in which he has handled the social distancing and people wearing masks, basically encouraged them not to. He’s a fool on this.”
“If you could get the crowds, you would have done the same thing,” Trump replied. “But you can’t. Nobody cares.”
Trump twice raised accusations of impropriety by Biden’s son Hunter, who was paid a large amount by a Ukrainian energy company when his father was supervising U.S. policy there.
Biden again defended his son as having done “nothing wrong,” and noted “we could talk about (Trump’s family) all night.”
Trump renewed his charge Biden would endanger the suburbs if he ran the country like Democratic mayors ran crime-ridden cities. “He wouldn’t know a suburb unless you took a wrong turn,” the former vice president replied.
Wallace asked Biden if he had advice for Democratic mayors and governors on curbing violence. Biden avoided the question, saying he had no authority because “I don’t hold public office.” When Wallace asked Trump if he would call out right-wing extremists as he has the left, the president replied, “Sure, I’m willing to do that,” but “everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.”
They exchanged charges over China trade problems. “He talks about these great trade deals,” Biden said. “We have a higher deficit with China that we did before.”
”China ate your lunch, Joe,” the president responded, changing the subject to cite a deal in which Hunter Biden made large sums in China.
Wallace asked both candidates to reassure the American people the next president will be the legitimate election winner.
“When the votes are counted, and they’re all counted, that will be accepted,” Biden said. “If I win, that will be accepted. If I lose, that will be accepted.”
Trump, by contrast, renewed arguments against the proliferation of mail-in ballots, predicting “fraud like you’ve never seen” and adding “I’m urging my supporters to go to the polls and watch very carefully.”
He said he would accept the election “if it’s a fair election,” but that, “if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”
It was hardly the reassurance which moderator Wallace was seeking.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.