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A Two-Man Debate Turns Into A Free-For-All, But Did Anyone Win?

President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden. Photos by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

The first presidential debate of the 2020 presidential election closed after 96 chaotic, bruising minutes that saw advantages wasted, interruptions abound, a failure by both sides to make a definitive case, and what at times seemed like a three-way fight largely focused on Democratic talking points.

President Donald Trump came out of the gate hard, attempting to knock Vice President Biden on his heels with the kind of comments that have defined his interview style since the 1980s. For the first 20-plus minutes, it worked.

“Right now I am the Democratic Party right now,” Biden asserted. “Not according to [Kamala] Harris,” his opponent replied.

“I beat Bernie Sanders,” the vice president shot back shortly after. “Not by much.”

“There is no manifesto,” the Democrat defended. “You just lost the left.”

The strategy looked like it would succeed, with the president ringing in an early hit on his term lasting four years — not three  — and against Biden’s claim that 100 million — or nearly one-third of Americans — have pre-existing health conditions (a definition once meaning they could not get health care but which the media now claims means anything), followed by a steady defense of his Supreme Court nominee.

Trump did not, however, succeed in turning either his initial jabs or Biden’s opening unsteadiness into any kind of firm hit, allowing the Delaware politician to recover with “Would you shut up, man?” and “Keep yappin’, man” — a tactic Biden continued to use to block the one-line jabs.

When the next set of questions kicked off, Biden had regained his composure, launching a stinging attack on the president’s COVID-19 response (the American people “don’t panic — he panicked”) and appealing to those voters who had an “empty chair at their kitchen table” due to the disease. While Trump might have responded with the lack of closure those Americans had because they were not even permitted to bury their dead, instead bickering ensued, often joined by moderator Christopher Wallace, whose early work to keep control of the stage quickly fell before the contestants’ mutual aggression.

This became the pattern for much of the night, with Trump skimming over opportunities on withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords and the Republican Party’s historic energy policies, and landing only a glancing and defensive hit on California’s failure to manage its forests after year upon year of entirely preventable, uncontrolled fires. The end of the hour saw the president’s first major debate win when he made the strong, sustained case for law enforcement and law and order — once-normal concepts he challenged Biden to say without equivocating — that drew only a tepid, weary defense from the Democrat.

When Biden cited his son Beau Biden’s military service in an attempted broadside on Trump, the president went on full offense, turning a rehearsed win for the Democrat into a defense of his other son, Hunter, who was discharged from the military after testing positive for cocaine — before making millions of dollars dealing with foreign governments.

The final 30 minutes largely played well to Biden’s camp, however. A teased question on Roe v. Wade never appeared (aside from Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s possible impact on the court) — a decided contrast with Wallace’s 2016 Trump vs. Hillary Clinton moderation, when he pressed the Democrat on late-term abortion.

Topics that did appear, however, mischaracterized Trump’s banning of anti-American “critical race theory” as a threat to “racial sensitivity training,” challenged the president on resisting global warming hysteria, called for him to affirm the results of the largest mail-in experiment in American history before it’s finished, and equivocated right-wing militias with Antifa while the former lives in the woods and the latter attacks police and civilians in American cities it occupies.

While Trump failed to land the early blows he seemingly could have, Biden failed to make the case for why he should be president, bogging down instead on criticism of his opponent. When offered the opportunity by Wallace, he notably refused to condemn Antifa, claiming it was “not a group” but rather “an idea.”

“When a bat hits you over the head,” Trump responded in a moment likely to populate Republican ads, “it is not an idea.”

Trump continued his closing assault demanding Biden name a single law enforcement group that supported him — a demand the vice president refused, as he’d refused an early push to affirm he would not stack the U.S. Supreme Court. By the end of the 96 minutes, however, it was impossible to feel anything but tired. The country had seen a fight, yes, but no side saw a winner.

The next clash of candidates is scheduled for Oct. 15, moderated by C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, and the final for one week after, moderated by NBC’s Kristen Welker.