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Tuesday night I, along with the rest of the country, watched in horror as the first presidential debate devolved into what can only be described as a childish food fight.
The moderator, Chris Wallace, was unable to control the debate from the very moment it began, failing repeatedly to reign in both candidates from interjecting themselves into the answers of the other. Soon enough, we were treated to a tornado of sound in which nothing could be heard, outside the occasional insults that were coming from both men.
Wallace, however, can be forgiven for that. Having moderated a number of candidate debates myself, there is really only so much you are able to do to control participants when they are intent on “being heard” and speaking over their opponent, and you.
What Wallace can not be forgiven for, however, is his uneven application of a moderator’s prerogative. Throughout the entire evening, he asked questions of President Donald Trump that were critical in nature, and then repeatedly refused to let an issue go when Trump attempted to dodge the question asked.
That, of course, is entirely fine with me. As a moderator it is your duty to get answers to questions, and reframe those questions to try to stop the evasions from happening. Sometimes you have to interrupt the candidate and demand an answer.
What wasn’t fine, though, is that the treatment of Trump was not repeated for former Vice President Joe Biden. For instance, when discussing the Supreme Court, Wallace asked Biden, “are you willing to tell the American people tonight whether or not you will support either ending the filibuster or packing the court?”
Biden’s response was a rambling mess about voting, and at one point he said outright “I’m not going to answer the question.” Wallace, giving up almost immediately in exasperation without much of a fight, said “gentlemen, I think we’ve ended this.”
Biden needed to answer that question, because he has himself refused to commit either way, and Democrats in the Senate and his activist base are currently falling all over themselves asking for it. If he supports it, he needs to say so. If he doesn’t, he needs to say so. Wallace needed to push him, and he didn’t.
Not that Wallace was the only bad actor, obviously.
Trump made a massive tactical error by being as aggressive as he was in this debate. He is, of course, always aggressive in debates, but going back to 2016 he was far more controlled in regard to his interruptions and challenges to Hillary Clinton than he was Tuesday night. He did it so frequently, and in many places so unnecessarily, that I don’t think it left a good impression on the audience.
But ironically, it may have also been a tactical mistake, because his interruptions frequently saved Biden from what may have otherwise been his lethargic, rambling delivery. Time after time, Trump stopped the former vice president from speaking about issues that are uncomfortable for him. The more Biden talks, the more likely he is to make a gaffe, or come off confused, and by cutting him off, Trump ironically helped Biden.
Not that Biden looked good. For all his complaints about Trump during the debate, his own demeanor was no better. Biden interrupted Trump throughout the entire debate, too. The only difference was that he wasn’t as loud, and usually did it with snide remarks under his breath, rather than argumentative confrontations. Beyond that, he was arrogant and insulting, at one saying to Trump, “will you shut up, man?” and then later dismissively told the president to “keep yapping.”
Biden lamented at one point that the proceedings that evening were “so unpresidential,” but he was frankly just as guilty as anyone else for that reality.
Regardless of the style issues, though, perhaps the most disappointing thing about the debate is that the unbelievably serious issues that should have been discussed that night — from the supreme court, to COVID-19, to race in America and the economy — were treated by both candidates as superficially as possible, and little more than soap boxes to make thinly veiled attacks on one another.
We got surface level answers with little depth all evening, and any American watching the debate would be at a loss to have actually learned much about either candidate, and what they’d like to do for the country moving forward. Not a single mind was changed Tuesday.
This country deserves far better than what we saw happen on that debate stage. We’ve fallen a long way from 1960.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.