Well, that was different—really different. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was the least enlightening, edifying or elevating presidential debate in U.S. history.
Both candidates probably excited their bases in Tuesday’s “Clash in Cleveland.” President Trump dominated the bout—for good and ill—and kept both former Vice President Joe Biden and debate moderator Chris Wallace off balance all night. For his part, Mr. Biden cleared the low bar set by Team Trump: He was visibly tiring by evening’s end but mostly lucid and coherent throughout.
The candidates defended their records when entrusted with high office—Mr. Trump as president and Mr. Biden as Barack Obama’s vice president. This laid a baseline for effective appeals, but neither man put forth a vision for America’s future, except for brief moments separated by long stretches of interruptions, insults and invective, often from the hyperaggressive president. Since the future is what most people want to hear about, the debate was a loss for the voters still up for grabs.
Both had good lines: Mr. Trump’s “In 47 months, I’ve done more than you’ve done in 47 years,” and Mr. Biden’s “This is not about my family or his family. It’s about your family.” But the debate wasn’t the game-changer that either candidate sought. And trailing in the polls, the president needed it more. Team Trump hoped Mr. Biden would dissolve in incoherence, while Team Biden thought they could bury Mr. Trump over his handling of the coronavirus. Neither happened. Both sides are likely to review their performances, congratulate themselves on winning, and then do things differently in the remaining debates.
While Mr. Trump clearly got under Mr. Biden’s skin by talking over him, the president too often came across as rude, even though it provoked Mr. Biden to escalate the conflict. One example: When Mr. Trump argued Democrats would “extinguish” private health insurance by offering taxpayer-subsidized coverage that drives private insurers out of business, Mr. Biden said “that’s simply a lie.” It isn’t, but once he started down Insult Road, Mr. Biden found it hard to stop, calling Mr. Trump “a liar,” “a clown,” “a racist” who uses “dog whistles” to incite “racist hatred,” and “Putin’s puppy.” He told the president both to “shut up” and to “keep yapping.” This diminished Mr. Biden—whose rationale for running is to heal our nation’s bitter divisions—more than it harmed Mr. Trump.
Mr. Biden also created problems for himself by evading simple questions. Why not admit or deny that he would urge the Senate to end the filibuster and pack the Supreme Court? Why avoid condemning antifa, a movement that riots, loots, commits arson and attacks police and private property? Why offer “I don’t hold public office” as his excuse for not counseling Oregon officials to take steps to end Portland’s violent nightly rampages? All this confirmed some people’s suspicions that Mr. Biden might be too weak for the job.
Team Trump thought their man created distance between Mr. Biden and his party’s Sandernista wing when the former vice president refused to endorse ending the filibuster and packing the Supreme Court and was prodded into dismissing the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations (“There is no manifesto”) and disavowing the Green New Deal (“Not my plan”). This is a false hope. The Democratic Party’s left hates Mr. Trump so much that this won’t diminish their enthusiasm in November. It will, however, cause the left to increase its efforts to pressure Mr. Biden leftward if he becomes president. And while attacking Hunter Biden’s ethical failures infuriates his father, it’s a sideshow. The president would be better off spending his debate time pushing his second-term agenda and establishing big contrasts on taxes, trade, national security and growth.
Mr. Trump did walk away with some victories. His economic stewardship remains a strength, and he did a decent job of undermining Mr. Biden’s Monday-morning-quarterback claim that he’d have handled Covid-19 better. Mr. Biden’s line saying the president “caused the recession” isn’t credible. But in the next debate, Mr. Trump should add supporting evidence. The president also handled for now his personal income-tax issue, mainly by claiming forcefully that he’d paid “millions of dollars,” not $750 a year.
Mr. Trump’s biggest win was goading Mr. Biden into pledging to “eliminate the Trump tax cuts.” The president should now meet with middle-class families whose tax cuts would be erased by Mr. Biden, so he can describe the fallout in a personal way. But the ferocity of Mr. Trump’s attacks may well have turned off some of these voters, whose support he must gain to win.
Tuesday did not change the campaign’s basic trajectory. Behind in public polls, Mr. Trump needed to bend the election’s course more than Mr. Biden did. But undisciplined and putting too much emphasis on the attack, he missed an opportunity. He has two more chances: Better make them count.