That particular Fox News faceoff drew 24 million viewers, a record for a primary debate — by comparison, the first Republican debate four years earlier drew 3.2 million viewers — and established Trump as more than a carnival sideshow. He swatted away tough questions, shrugged off biting criticisms of his most outrageous comments and displayed a surprising depth of knowledge about issues both foreign and domestic. The Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote that Trump, by avoiding coming off as a professional politician, “seemed to me the clear winner,” an opinion widely shared by other pundits.
Despite his political inexperience and numerous scandalous revelations — including some that emerged mere weeks before the general election — enough voters in enough states decided to take a chance on the reality TV star and sent him to Washington while sending Hillary Clinton packing.
That first 2015 GOP debate took place in Cleveland, where Trump returned Tuesday to square off against 2020 Democratic nominee and former vice president Joe Biden. Do voters have buyer’s remorse? After four years of disruption, scandals (some real, some overhyped) and daily doses of Trumpian reality-show-style leadership, is it possible that a professional politician might seem like a better idea after all?
Trump started out rather subdued Tuesday, answering an opening question about the Supreme Court with a quiet, reasonable reply. That lasted about a minute. He was soon in full bluster, talking over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, quickly complaining to Wallace, “I guess I’m debating you, not him. That’s okay. I’m not surprised.”
Biden often seemed rattled, not quite sure whether to dignify Trump’s scattered accusations with a response, but simultaneously failing to answer important questions such as whether he would agree to “pack” the Supreme Court, as many other Democrats have suggested. His strategy of laughing while Trump was scoring points wasn’t particularly effective, including when Trump hit Biden over his criticism early this year that Trump was being xenophobic by closing travel from China in response to the spread of covid-19.
When Trump returned again and again to attacking Hunter Biden, the candidate’s son, Biden at one point replied with an effective counterpunch, saying, “This is not about my family or his family. It’s about your family.” Trump’s attacks went over the top, damaging his effort to raise questions about the younger Biden’s overseas business dealings.
Trump scored points with his comments about law and order, and by citing the violence that has emerged from some protests over the summer. Biden’s failure to more forcefully denounce rioters does him no favors, although his “law and order with justice” was a good line. His answer that “I don’t hold public office now” when Wallace asked whether he had called city leaders to demand they stop the violence was weak, as was “antifa’s an idea, not an organization.”
As for the president, the debate was a case of Trump being Trump. He is no longer shocking or surprising or even novel, which might be to his detriment. Biden seemed wearied by his opponent generally and exasperated by the president’s interruptions — perhaps that was part of Trump’s strategy. But the disrupter vs. the professional offered clear contrasts on issues ranging from the pandemic to crime to the economy.
All that was required of Biden on Tuesday night was a demonstration of focus, coherence and stamina for 90 minutes. He was shaky at times, but still standing at the wrap-up. When the dust settled, it was unlikely the landscape had changed much — which, if the polls are accurate, was good for Biden.