US presidential debate: who won, was it any good, were there any surprises?

Five Irish Times journalists and commentators give their verdicts on the Ohio face-off

US president Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden clashed in a fiery and often chaotic first face-to-face debate ahead of the US election. Video: Reuters

 

Suzanne Lynch, Washington Correspondent:

Was it a good debate?

By the traditional definition of a debate – a formal discussion where each side puts forward opposing arguments – the answer is a firm no. Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden, talking over his rival. The effect was disjointed and fragmented. Though he improved as the debate went on, moderator Chris Wallace struggled to keep control, and there was little room for substantive policy discussion.

“You’re debating him, not me,” Wallace said to Trump in the first few minutes of the debate. “Mr President, I am the moderator of this debate and I’d like you to let me ask my question.”

Biden did a good job at not taking the bait as Trump went on the attack. Stylistically, Biden looked straight into the camera lens, addressing the American people directly. He barely gave Trump a glance during the 90 minutes, instead resorting to the odd put-down like “Will he shush for a minute?” and one of the most memorable lines of the night – “Will you shut up, man?”

Similarly, Biden avoided falling into the trap of live fact-checking the president, a lesson learned from Hillary Clinton four years ago.

He may not have set the world alight, but Biden managed to stay above the fray. Trump has always been the more forceful, dominant personality – that dynamic was on show during the debate.

Were there any surprises?

I expected Biden to have been more prepared for some of the more obvious Trump attack lines. When asked what was his plan for the supreme court and to defend his son Hunter’s link with Ukraine, Biden floundered. These issues are going to continue to be raised in the weeks to come.

What was the key moment?

“Will you shut up, man” – the line from Biden early on captured the tone and tenor of this scrappy and ill-tempered debate. Ironically, while Trump is known for his memorable one-liners, it was Biden who delivered the lines of the night. – “Will he shush for a minute?”; “Will you shut up man”; “China’s perfected the art of the steal”; “You’re the worst president that America’s ever had.”

However, Trump’s tactic of constantly talking over Biden meant that Biden’s lines were lost in the tumult, and are unlikely to emerge as soundbites from this debate. In this respect, Trump’s aggressive strategy worked.

Who won, and why?

Depending on your perspective . . . both. The two candidates performed to type – Trump turned to his usual playbook of attack, interruption and personal insults; Biden delivered a competent, if sometimes faltering performance.

For those hoping that Biden was going to deliver a bold, visionary rebuttal of Trump and offer a forward-looking alternative for America, that was never going to happen. Biden, as a 77-year-old political insider with 47 years of political experience, has always been the restoration candidate, not a symbol of generational change. That decision was made when the Democratic Party selected him as their candidate.

Biden’s campaign will be happy that their candidate passed the admittedly low bar set by Trump beforehand, by avoiding any major gaffe. Trump’s supporters will welcome the fact that the president exhibited the strength they admire.

But his refusal to categorically condemn white supremacy and personal attacks on Biden’s family are unlikely to win him any new support among suburban female voters who could determine the outcome of this election.

In the minutes after the debate, the verdict from Fox News will be a worry for the Trump campaign – Biden is definitely still in the game.

Chris Dooley, foreign editor:

Was it a good debate?

No, it was too much of a slugfest to be termed a good debate. Trump set the terms of a no-holds barred, no rules confrontation from the opening round, to his opponent’s evident frustration. “That was a productive segment, wasn’t it?”, Biden lamented at the end of the opening section. “Keep yapping man”. Any viewer hoping for a mature exchange on the issues was watching the wrong show.

Any surprises?

Not really. Trump was the Trump we know, but anybody who believed the anti-Biden slurs about his mental acuity would have been surprised. There was an odd moment of hesitation but the Democratic candidate stood up well to the demands of a 90-minute, break-free, intense debate and he looked stronger at the end than at the start.

Key moment?

Biden’s impassioned defence of his sons late in the debate, in particular his contrasting of Beau’s army record with Trump’s reported denigration of the military. “And speaking of my son, the way you talk about the military, the way you talk about them being losers and just being suckers – my son was in Iraq, he spent a year there, he got the bronze star, he got the conspicuous service medal, he was not a loser, he was a patriot, and the people left behind there were heroes.”

Who won, and why?

I thought Trump was winning until around the half way mark. Biden struggled to get a word in, even telling the president once to “shut up man”. But Biden grew in strength as the debate progressed and his sincerity and passion were evident in the section on racial strife. The Trump campaign had set the bar for “Sleepy Joe” very low to begin with. He easily cleared that, and won the debate.

Finn McRedmond, journalist and Irish Times commentator:

Was it a good debate?

No. But “debate” is a lofty term for what was essentially a glorified squabble between the two candidates.

Amid the bickering, shouting and interrupting (President Donald Trump led the charge) it was impossible to make out any policy positions – and both candidates suffered.

Joe Biden was at his best when talking directly to camera, uninterrupted – attempting to connect emotionally with the viewers. Trump, then, was wise to deny Biden this opportunity, interrupting him at every turn and throwing Biden off script.

But Trump’s bombastic and aggressive tactics – something we should have come to expect from the 2016 debates – derailed the whole occasion and allowed Biden to avoid tricky details of his policy platform.

Wolf Blitzer, CNN anchor, said in the immediate aftermath that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if this is the last presidential debate between the pair. Dana Bash, chief political correspondent for CNN was more direct on the abject chaos of the evening: “That was a s*** show”, she said.

Any surprises?

A charge often leveraged at Biden is that he can seem weak, and perhaps bumbling, in these politically combative moments. And for a not insignificant portion of the evening, that seemed to ring true.

But Biden had his moments. As Trump continued to interrupt Biden with incoherent interjections, Biden’s retort “will you just shut up, man” may become the takeaway quote of the night.

It was a smart response: Biden needed to appear presidential in a way that Trump seems largely incapable of. But there was a very real risk that Trump would railroad Biden’s more moderate, if at times retiring, style. Biden, then, did well in pushing back on Trump when he was being a bully.

And Biden’s palpable anger as he spoke about his family lent him a degree of humanity Trump consistently lacked.

As Biden endeavoured to skewer Trump for allegedly calling the US war dead “losers”, Biden spoke of his son, Beau: “He was not a loser, he was a patriot.”

When Trump was asked by the moderator, Chris Wallace, and then Biden himself, to condemn white supremacists he failed to do so. We might be inclined to say that this was the most surprising moment of the night. But for anyone who has been following the presidential race over the summer, and for anyone who has witnessed Trump’s recent approach to American domestic politics, we know that this is in his wheelhouse.

Debate moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace in Ohio. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images
Debate moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace in Ohio. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

Key moment?

It is hard to identify one moment amid the deluge of chaos. But the closing question, on electoral legitimacy, was certainly concerning.

As the pair clashed on the legitimacy of the election results, Trump continued to lay the groundwork for postal votes being vulnerable to fraud. Trump claimed that mailmen are “selling ballots” while other ballots were “being dumped in rivers” (two unsubstantiated claims).

“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen” the president added.

It ought to be remarkable that Biden had to make clear that he would accept the result of the election if he lost. But in the face of Trump’s un-evidenced claims – sowing uncertainty about the results and encouraging his supporters to question the legitimacy of the postal voting system – it was a necessary and powerful statement.

Who won and why?

Expectations for Biden were low at the outset. The fear among Democrats was that Biden would make some kind of gaffe, or would appear confused and incoherent.

The bar may have been low, but Biden cleared it. It seemed he was not fully prepared for how aggressive Trump would be at the outset, but as the evening went on Biden found his feet, and at moments was even deft at handling Trump’s persistent interruptions.

But Trump probably did a better job at activating his base than Biden. His combative style served him well in 2016. And, being scolded by the moderator for shouting over Biden will play well into the narrative that Trump is an outrider, under persistent attack from the so-called mainstream media.

But Trump came into the debate behind in the polls, and needed to do a lot more than please his extant supporters. His uphill climb is steep, and throughout the evening it seems the president failed to land a significant enough blow to undermine Biden’s lead at the polls.

Damian Cullen, Irish Times journalist:

Was it a good debate?

Well, what were you expecting? Surely no one expected a detailed, respectful debate. But it failed to even live up to the lowest of expectations. It was a terrible debate. It was certainly entertaining, but that’s the lowest bar for a presidential debate. Remember when, just a few days ago, Chris Wallace said his job was “to be as invisible as possible”? At several stages, it felt the debate was between the moderator and Trump.

Any surprises?

It was absolutely no surprise that Trump’s game-plan was an aggressive, interrupting one, focused on trying to throw Biden off his game. Maybe the surprise was just how disruptive the president was. Early doors it seemed Biden may give in to his frustration and be drawn into a slugging match, but the carefully-crafted plan was obviously to simply ignore Trump for long periods – not an easy task – and to goad him every now and then. It will never not be surprising to hear someone telling the president of the United States to “shut up”.

Key moment?

There was no particular standout moment in a truly awful debate, though the segment on race was particularly striking. When asked to condemn white supremacists, Trump said they should “stand back and stand by”. Biden had to negotiate a tricky path on law and order – his camp will believe he did that well. Probably the other key moments were the direct-to-camera appeals by Biden. Several of them felt directed at Trump’s base.

Who won, and why?

Before the debate I had watched video previews from some hard-core Trump supporters on social media. The expectation by many Trump supporters was that the president would wipe the floor with Biden, and the campaign has spent millions in the past few months telling the American people that Biden is mentally slow. So the bar was set extremely low by the Trump campaign for Biden.

That was a big mistake. The former vice-president easily cleared that bar. None of that will be the talking point in the coming days however – it will be entirely overshadowed by the dumpster-fire that was this debate.

David McKechnie, deputy foreign editor:

Was it a good debate?

It was an ugly and ill-tempered debate that brought out the weaknesses in both the format and the candidates: the brawling, narcissistic bully; the diminished veteran struggling to articulate his talking points amid the onslaught. It was hard to think of a meaningful policy point or exchange, particularly in the opening segments, as Chris Wallace struggled to halt the flow of presidential interruptions. It was tempting to wonder how a different, more nimble Democratic candidate – a Harris or a Warren – would have fared, but Trump’s spoiling tactics are effective in most arenas.

Any surprises?

The dynamic was not unexpected – Trump the aggressor, Biden trying to make policy points. The surprise was that Biden’s strongest moments was when he turned to disrespectful, Trump-like zingers – “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown”; “You’re the worst president that America has ever had”, “Will you shut up, man?” The pointed contempt for Trump-as-president was a nudge to undecideds that the Republican candidate is an alien in the White House. Another surprise: Biden failed to take advantage of the coronavirus segment.

Key moment?

Wallace struggled to put discipline on proceedings but his questioning was at times pointed and persistent. “Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists, militia groups and to say that they need to stand down,” he asked the president in the segment on race. Trump demurred in bizarre fashion. “Proud Boys [a white supremacist group], stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” An incendiary reply, and a sign that race will remain at the forefront of the campaign.

Who won, and why?

“Won” seems like an overstatement – but in the end Biden edged it, for the masochistic or those with the endurance to watch to the finish. After a deeply uncomfortable beginning, the former VP found his feet and his tongue. Chris Wallace asserted himself better and Biden had more room to breathe; Trump became disheartened and ragged. Early on, undecided voters may have been impressed by the president’s forcefulness; by the end, they may have thought how difficult it would be to watch four more years of ill-focused boorishness.

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