Before very long into Tuesday night’s first presidential debate, held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, it was pretty clear what President Trump’s strategy was.
Trump knew going in that moderator Chris Wallace would step on pretty much all of his answers and bail Joe Biden out whenever he could. And because of that obvious expectation, Trump would harass Biden and flummox Wallace for the full 90 minutes. It didn’t matter whether Trump looked obnoxious in doing it — he was one against two, and he’d have to hold his own the best he could.
He started off reasonably well, but Trump’s interruptions flustered him. By the 20-minute mark he whined, “Will you shut up, maaaan?” at the president of the United States.
Those expectations were met, and Wallace held his thumb on the scale every bit as much as Trump’s supporters figured he would. That was one factor that allowed Biden to survive the first debate.
But he couldn’t win it. Joe Biden can’t win a debate. Not anymore.
Trump interrupted Biden constantly, intentionally. When Biden’s team apparently on Tuesday refused a request made by the Trump campaign to check each candidate’s ears for IFB devices, something the legacy media scoffed was based in “conspiracy theories” despite incontrovertible evidence that Biden uses teleprompters to do even softball TV interviews, the interruptions would be a way to ensure that if Biden was being fed lines it wouldn’t do him any good.
Biden denied he was wearing an earpiece, tweeting before the debate that his iPhone earbuds were “earpieces” and Jeni’s ice cream was a “performance enhancer.” There was no evidence he wore one, and it wouldn’t have done him much good if he had.
The former vice president managed to spout prepared talking points … barely. He started off reasonably well, but Trump’s interruptions flustered him. By the 20-minute mark he whined, “Will you shut up, maaaan?” at the president of the United States. Twenty minutes later Biden called the president a “clown.” Along the way Biden couldn’t remember which of his sons he was talking about, amid his repeated denials that his son Hunter took money from China, Russia, and Ukraine. Trump hit Biden over and over again with the accusation, which was documented in a Senate Republican report, that Hunter Biden took $3.5 million from the wife of the former mayor of Moscow, and Biden continually mumbled that the accusation had been disproved.
“By whom?” Trump asked. Biden had no answer.
Biden also had no answer when Trump challenged him to name a single law enforcement endorsement of note he had received, something that prompted Wallace to quickly jump in and change the subject. And Biden, who began the debate proclaiming that “I am the Democratic Party,” badly flubbed a question from Wallace about the 100 days of rioting in Portland. When Wallace inquired as to whether Biden, who of late has babbled about the impropriety of political street violence after casting a pleasant eye toward it earlier in the year, had called Oregon Gov. Kate Brown or Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and asked them to take firm steps to restore order in the streets, Slow Joe responded that he doesn’t currently hold office.
Wait, Joe. You are the Democratic Party. You just said so a little earlier. The Democratic Party can’t call its own elected officials and tell them to do their jobs before Portland burns to the ground? Is that the kind of engaged, affirmative leadership you offer?
Trump hammered Biden multiple times on his lack of accomplishments over 47 years in office, but without a whole lot of specificity. He did make reference to the fact Biden suggested trying to prosecute Gen. Mike Flynn under the Logan Act when Flynn was on Trump’s transition team as his designate for National Security Adviser, and he ripped into Biden’s economic record as vice president, though Wallace quickly jumped in to cite job numbers during the Obama administration without making the distinction of how many of those jobs were full-time and how many were part-time.
It didn’t come up that one of the more economically devastating effects of Obamacare, which Biden offers far more of while blustering that Trump “has no health-care plan” (perhaps we don’t really want to depend on our president to dictate our access to health care, Joe!), was that it induced a large number of employers to cut employees’ hours down below 30 a week in order to escape crippling health insurance mandates. That had the effect of “creating jobs” while insuring few actually got ahead on the stagnant wages they were making. Of course it didn’t — Wallace wasn’t going to challenge Biden on that point, and Trump was too busy pointing out how unpopular Obamacare’s individual mandate was and accusing Biden of pushing socialized medicine.
By the debate’s second half, Biden was struggling to make coherent points, stuttering and feebly pleading with the audience. He struggled to keep straight the difference between thousands and millions. He gave a gibberish non-answer to a question about Democrats’ threats to pack the Supreme Court: “Whatever position I take on that, that will become the issue,” he said, as though somehow that’s a statement that has any merit or reassures the public that its core institutions can survive Democrat rule. He babbled ancient talking points about how weatherizing houses will lead to a jobs boom. After earlier denying that he would end hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and gas, Biden claimed he would scrub oil, gas, and coal from American power production by 2035 and then proceeded to deny he supports the Green New Deal. Trump chided him with an interruption, telling Biden he “just lost the Radical Left!” and earning a dirty look in response.
Biden’s eyes were wider and beadier than normal. Something appeared to have dilated his pupils, giving rise to some credence behind talk spread by Team Trump that he was hopped up on medication of some kind. But it didn’t stop him from giving rambling answers and putting out strange claims, like when he said one in 500 black Americans would die of COVID-19 before it’s all said and done. There are some 44 million black Americans — that would mean Biden’s mouth just killed off 88,000 of them (the current number is less than half that). Biden lazily walked into a question about Critical Race Theory, after an answer from Trump was a foul ball at best, and took a dump on the country claiming it was rife with “systemic injustice” and then began prattling about little kids’ feelings. It came off as pandering, and not particularly eloquent pandering at that.
It was a weak performance, saved by Wallace’s ministrations and Biden’s own low expectations. After scratching half the campaign days in September for some unspecified reason (one theory is that Biden’s sleep patterns have been adjusted by his handlers so that he wouldn’t “sundown” during the debate), No-Show Joe’s very appearance in Cleveland was in doubt all the way to the starting gate. But he managed to survive, and his supporters will now claim victory.
It’s victory only in a sense that Biden can claim a participation trophy. But that’s all his campaign — and political career — have ever been about. The question is whether the American people have similarly low standards.