A Bad Night for the President

President Donald Trump listens during the first presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Clevela... President Donald Trump listens during the first presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 29, 2020 11:35 p.m.

I worried what this momentous night would bring. In the event I think it was somewhere between bad and disastrous for President Trump.

The most important fact about this debate is that going into it President Trump was clearly behind. He needed to shift the dynamic of the race, force some major error, introduce some new factor. That didn’t happen. I saw nothing tonight that seems at all likely to improve things for President Trump. Nothing.

Biden did fine. Not great. But fine. I’d say he had a B performance with some B+ or even A- minus moments. But for him that’s fine. He’s ahead. He’s not running as best debater. He’s not running as most dynamic figure. He’s not competing for most unstable affect. He’s running as the guy who will end the nightmare. If that’s the goal he turned in just the right performance.

To the extent there was any strategy to Trump’s ranting – and I think it was mainly instinctual – it was to create chaos in the hope that it would throw Biden off his stride and prompt some scattered or damaging moment. That didn’t happen. It was really just Trump yelling. That was the strategy his surrogates previewed. And if he had triggered some embarrassing flub perhaps it would have been a winning strategy. Everybody knows Trump’s a bully and a loudmouth. That’s not new information. But maybe it would be worth it if he forced some major error from Biden. He didn’t. And so what we had was Trump ranting, visibly angry, launching off on numerous digressions, lying. It was ugly, unhinged and exhausting – a good summary of Trump’s entire presidency.

One thing that struck me was that the few times when Biden was able to speak uninterrupted for 30 or 60 seconds he was actually devastating against Trump. I was thinking, Trump’s right to keep interrupting. When Biden gets to talk it’s terrible for Trump.

Biden spent a lot of time simply laughing at Trump. That made for a good visual and it also clearly enraged the President. That spurred Trump to be even more self-injuring. It made him more spluttering. Donald Trump is the President of the United States. And yet half the time during this spectacle he looked like the loudmouth yelling taunts and insults outside a party he’s pissed he wasn’t invited to.

He looked weak and angry.

There are definitely people who think Biden didn’t seem strong enough reacting to or containing Trump’s tirades. Basically I don’t think this is right. Clearly Biden isn’t really quite able to keep up with Trump’s antics. I don’t say that because of age. It’s just characterologically beyond him, for better or worse. But Biden’s not running for arguer. He held his own and simply showed himself to be a very different kind of person, a very different kind of potential President. That’s a win for him.

Trump talked a lot more. In a sense he did “dominate” the debate. But most of it was self-injuring.

I think there’s a decent chance this performance will be quite damaging for Trump. But who knows? Other outrages have rolled over him like water over a duck’s back. What I’m very confident of is that Trump needed to change things in his favor. He failed to do that. Since he’s behind, and significantly behind, that is a huge missed opportunity and a big loss.

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