Neither quite got their wish Tuesday night at the first presidential debate of the general election cycle. Ninety-plus minutes of television brought a series of chaotic and deeply personal attacks, in what was more of a rolling argument between two men than it was a debate.
Out of the crosstalk, insults, eye-rolls and sighs, Biden sought to frame the campaign around the pandemic that has defined Trump’s presidency.
“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Biden told the president.
Trump wielded a two-pronged counter-argument – saying that he handled the virus better than Biden would have, and that he is better trusted to bring the country success going forward.
“This guy will close down the whole country and destroy our country,” Trump said.
More broadly, both men had strong moments, yet also showed vulnerabilities in their core campaign arguments. Trump offered conflicting and contradictory answers on health care, COVID-19 and even his own taxes; Biden sometimes struggled to explain his own policy positions amid interruptions by the president.
Occasional policy arguments got sidetracked in personal swipes – peppered by insults.
Trump to Biden: “There's nothing smart about you.”
Biden to Trump: “You’re the worst president America’s ever had.”
Trump: “I've done more in 47 months than you've done in 47 years.”
Biden: “We handed him a booming economy. He blew it.”
Biden did his best to direct answers to the audience following along – or, at least, trying to do so – at home. But he acknowledged exasperation with the president’s style.
“It’s hard to get any word in with this clown – excuse me, this guy,” Biden said.
Trump sought to undermine Biden even before the debate began. He portrayed his rival as mentally and physically unfit for the presidency, and he and his campaign promoted baseless conspiracy theories about Biden receiving pharmacological and audiovisual assistance.
Both candidates were perhaps showing signs of rust – and, surely, of pent-up frustration with what the rival has been saying about him. Biden hadn’t debated in six months; for Trump, it’s been four years.
Yet if neither Trump nor Biden managed to hit a rhythm in describing their visions for the presidency, their first clash said quite a bit about both men.
Trump was unapologetic in defending – and, sometimes, rewriting - his record and taking any fights back to Biden. In a discussion about law and order, the president challenged Biden to name a law-enforcement group that supports him.
Biden didn’t answer that question. A few minutes later, Trump declined an invitation from moderator Chris Wallace to directly condemn white supremacists.
Biden sought to emphasize class differences with Trump – as well as differences on basic matters of empathy. When Trump tried to turn the debate to his son’s business dealings, Biden turned to the camera.
“This is not about family. It's about your family – the American people. He doesn't want to talk about what you need – you,” Biden said.
Late in the debate, honed his message: “Under this president, we have become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided and more violent.”
As for Trump, he made clear his campaign is now primarily about disqualifying Biden: “He will destroy this country,” the president said.
It may be that the debate is declared a draw – or a double loss, since so little light was generated among all that heat. Biden didn’t fully answer concerns about his ability to square off with Trump, and Trump most likely didn’t change the direction of a campaign that’s trending against him.
One final telling contrast came in a discussion about election integrity.
“Vote, vote, vote,” Biden said. “If we get the votes, it will be all over. He’s going to go.”
Trump, for his part, warned of a “disaster” in mail-in voting, and spread false information about potential election outcomes. Pointedly, he would not commit to respecting the election results if he didn’t trust the process.
“This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said. “This is not going to end well.”
The election, of course, is already happening, though it seems far from its end at the moment.
Some 1.3 million Americans have already cast ballots. Millions more will before the next presidential debate, in two weeks – many with little new information about the two men who would be president based on this night.