The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden cleared the low bar Trump set for him. But Trump still won.

President Trump speaks during the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign in Cleveland on Tuesday. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
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Tuesday night saw the first of three scheduled presidential debates. I would not be surprised if it were the last. The debate was a dumpster fire of attacks, interruptions and name-calling. Yet Democratic nominee Joe Biden got through the 98-minute brawl without a senior moment or disqualifying gaffe. By making fun of his mental capacity for months, President Trump set the bar low for Biden, and he cleared it. Having done so, Biden might figure he has nothing to gain from doing it again — and could point to Tuesday’s mess as an excuse to pull out of the remaining debates.

He has good reason to want to avoid another round, because Trump won the debate on points, landing a number of blows. Despite the president’s repeated demands, Biden refused to answer whether he will support eliminating the filibuster and packing the Supreme Court — which is essentially an admission that he will. Trump pummeled him on his 1994 crime bill, which led to mass incarceration of African Americans. He baited Biden on why he won’t say he supports “law and order,” and asked him to name one law-enforcement group that endorsed him. Biden could not, declaring instead, “We don’t have time.”

When Trump accused him of supporting socialized medicine, Biden said his plan’s public option will be “only for those people who are so poor they qualify for Medicaid.” No serious person believes that. Biden responded to Trump’s constant attacks by taking the bait and getting down in the mud himself, calling the president a “clown,” a “liar” and a “racist,” and telling him, “Shut up, man.” The result was the most undignified presidential debate in American history.

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President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden spent time arguing and interrupting each other during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s base will love his performance. But the president did not need to energize his base, which is already fired up and ready to vote. He needed to win over persuadable voters who like his policies but don’t like him. Before the pandemic he appealed to these voters by saying, “Whether you love me or hate me, you have got to vote for me.” Unfortunately, his performance Tuesday did little to convince them that they should.

Trump’s challenge is encapsulated in a New York Times-Siena College poll, which finds that 46 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing as president and 54 percent approve of his handling of the economy — but only 41 percent say they plan to vote for him. That means a lot of voters who think Trump is doing a good job don’t plan to give him a second term. Why? Perhaps it’s because they are exhausted by what the nation witnessed Tuesday night. Trump’s job was to make himself more palatable to these reluctant voters, and persuade them to look past what they don’t like about him and vote in their self-interest. His hyper-aggressive attacks did the opposite. To Americans suffering from Trump exhaustion, the debate must have left them even wearier.

Trump’s best line of the night came when he turned to Biden and said, “In 47 months, I’ve done more than you’ve done in 47 years.” He’s absolutely right. He needed to spend more time talking about his accomplishments and how putting Biden in charge would endanger those achievements — and spend less time brawling. Instead, Trump’s performance was reminiscent of “This Is Spinal Tap” lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, who famously declared that while the volume on most amps goes only to 10, his amp goes to 11. On Tuesday night, Trump turned his amp all the way up to 11. At the next debate, he needs to lower it to 8 or 9 — if there is a next debate.

Read more:

Max Boot: Trump showed no respect for time limits, human decency or the truth

Dana Milbank: Only the Proud Boys can take pride in Trump’s debate hooliganism

Alyssa Rosenberg: I recapped ‘Game of Thrones.’ This debate was wilder.

Gary Abernathy: Trump the disrupter has lost his novelty

Jennifer Rubin: Trump blows up the debate — and himself

Transcript: Columnists’ real-time commentary on the first presidential debate