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5 takeaways from the first presidential debate

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump argued against each other in a tense debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump and Joe Biden took part in their first of three one-on-one debates of the 2020 general election Tuesday night in Cleveland.

It was so contentious and full of interruptions that it was almost unwatchable, but there were some takeaways. Here they are.

1. Biden resists Trump’s goading — mostly.

Trump’s strategy was clear: to steamroll both Biden and debate moderator Chris Wallace, hoping to provoke a bad moment. It was the strategy of a challenger, more than of an incumbent, and seemed to reflect that Trump needs to change the race more than Biden does.

Biden’s strategy was also clear: to stick to his talking points, try not to engage much, and deny Trump what he wanted.

Biden lost his cool at a few points, including asking, “Will you shut up, man?” At another point: “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown — excuse me, this person.” At another: “Keep yapping, man."

At times, Biden was exasperated, and at other times, he dealt with the barrage effectively. At one point, Trump tried to cut in by saying, “Can I be honest?” Biden shot back: “Try and be honest.”

But all told, Biden didn’t allow himself to be pulled off his game. And he avoided some of the lapses and uneasy moments that marked some of his Democratic debate performances.

The debate wasn’t enlightening from a policy standpoint, mostly because Trump wanted a food fight. Biden didn’t give it to him, which reinforced the reality of who’s leading this race right now.

2. Trump’s coronavirus answers get no better.

Trump’s biggest liability in the election is the coronavirus pandemic, on which polls regularly show even some of his supporters don’t think he’s done a good job.

Trump offered little to change that. And Biden had some of his strongest moments on this subject.

At one point, Biden noted that Trump once floated injecting disinfectant into people to combat the virus. Trump maintained he had been speaking “sarcastically.” (Trump’s presentation at the time did not suggest it was in jest.)

Trump was also asked about his mask skepticism, at which point he argued that masks are fine and that he wears them when he thinks he needs them (which is rarely in public). Biden noted that Trump continues to hold rallies at which masks have often been scarce.

“He’s not worried about you,” Biden said. “He’s not worried about the people out there breathing.”

Biden summed up his case accordingly: “He’s been totally irresponsible in the way in which he has handled the social distancing and people wearing masks, basically encouraged them not to. And he’s a fool on this.”

Trump gambled that voters would be more turned off by Biden saying he would shut things down again if health officials advised it, baselessly accusing Democrats of using current mitigation methods for electoral benefit.

3. It was an awful debate.

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)

A few weeks ago, Wallace delivered one of the toughest interviews of Trump to date — a rare instance in which Trump was repeatedly fact-checked on his falsehoods and didn’t seem to know what to do.

Wallace was in some ways set up to fail on Tuesday night. He wasn’t supposed to fact-check the candidates as he did Trump a few weeks ago. And it wasn’t clear that any moderator would have been able to handle what was thrown at him. But it just wasn’t a good debate.

Wallace allowed himself to be something of a wallflower early on, as Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and Biden sometimes interrupted Trump — before either of them could convey a cogent thought.

But most striking was Wallace’s attempts to almost placate Trump.

“Mr. President, you’re going to be very happy, because we’re going to talk about law and order,” Wallace said at one point while trying to move past Trump talking over Biden.

“Let me ask — sir, you’ll be happy, I’m about to pick up on one of your points to ask the vice president,” Wallace said at another point.

At other points, though, Wallace noted that Trump was clearly the chief offender.

“And by the way, Mr. President, your campaign agreed that both sides would get two-minute answers uninterrupted,” Wallace noted later in the debate.

Again, it was an impossible situation, but it will hardly go down as a great presidential debate.

4. Biden distances himself from the left.

One of the prevailing GOP attacks on Biden is that he would be beholden to the far left. Biden set out at the start of the debate to combat that.

When Trump goaded Biden on some of the more extreme elements of his party, Biden shot back, “I am the Democratic Party right now. The platform of the Democratic Party is what I in fact approved of,” adding for emphasis: “what I approved of.”

When Trump tied to connect Biden’s health-care plan to Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a rival in the Democratic primaries, Biden responded, “The fact of the matter is I beat Bernie Sanders.”

Trump retorted: “Not by much.”

Biden responded: “I beat him [by] a whole hell of a lot.”

(Biden won more than 2,600 Democratic convention delegates, while Sanders won 1,073.)

Biden also maintained that there is systemic racism, but echoed an argument that the GOP often makes about police — that those who abuse their power are the rare “bad apples."

Later on, Biden again pointedly declined to attach himself to a push by liberals upset over Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court to abolish the filibuster or pack the Supreme Court, saying voters should have their voices heard on the topic.

“Whatever position I take … that will become the issue,” Biden said. “The issue is the American people should speak. You should go out and vote.”

It wasn’t a profile in bold politics, and it could disappoint some of his liberal allies — Trump at one point shot back, “You just lost the left” — but it was clear Biden wanted to insulate himself, which was probably the smart play given that he leads the race.

5. Trump declines to condemn white supremacists.

Trump has repeatedly resisted denouncing white nationalists and white supremacists who have allied themselves with him. So Wallace asked Trump to make his position clear.

Trump left it very unclear, and at least one group saw his words as giving them a nod.

Asked whether he was willing to denounce white supremacists and militia groups, Trump said, “Sure.” He added, speaking broadly, “Sure, I’m willing to do that, but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing.”

Biden and Wallace then invited Trump to say it more explicitly, but he went in a different direction. Trump asked them to name specific groups, at which point Biden volunteered the “Proud Boys.”

Trump offered something besides a condemnation.

“Proud Boys: Stand back and stand by,” Trump said, adding: “But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.”

The most charitable read on Trump’s comments is that he was truly suggesting that such groups back off. But he clearly didn’t condemn them, and the Proud Boys didn’t take it as such.