Trump’s aggressive and norm-shattering tactics on the stage in Cleveland on Tuesday drew criticism even from some Republican allies, who joined Democrats on Wednesday to express how demoralizing they found the debate.
As some Democrats encouraged Biden to skip future debates, the commission in charge of the events said it would take swift action to help “maintain order” going forward. One area of agreement? Something needs to change.
“It was awful,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The near universal condemnation of the event as a disturbing spectacle unworthy of a presidential race stood out even in an era when political norms are constantly challenged. For many, a hallmark of thriving American democracy — the presidential debate — was instead transformed into an emblem of democracy’s deterioration.
But it also brought to a boil the long-simmering questions about the usefulness of the traditional debate format. While these faceoffs in previous cycles have had a greater sense of decorum, critics have charged that they often amounted to little more than an exchange of sound bites rather than a robust discussion of what’s best for the country.
“My reaction was, this doesn’t need to happen again,” said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, who argued that Tuesday night was the latest example of why such events have outlived their value as a means to inform voters. “It does not serve any useful purpose. It’s just ugly, and it reflects poorly on our political system.”
The commission’s goal of tinkering with the format to produce a better result, at least for this race, faces an uphill task — namely, a president who showed himself willing to flout the existing rules and turn the debate into a street brawl.
“Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the commission said in a statement. “The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”
On Tuesday, Trump repeatedly attacked and interrupted Biden as he spoke, not allowing the Democratic nominee to complete his sentences. It was a clear violation of ground rules agreed to by both campaigns and the latest gambit by a president struggling to reshape a race in which polls show him trailing with five weeks to go.
But Trump’s aggressiveness — and Biden’s decision at times to respond with his own insults — left the viewing public worse for wear at the end of the night, according to political analysts, historians and lawmakers who described the debate as the worst in modern history.
Ratings dropped significantly from four years ago, as many voters tuned out. Television anchors openly used profanity as they tried to characterize what they had just witnessed. Foreign observers expressed a sense of dismay and consternation toward the world’s leading democracy. Even the moderator expressed regret for the night’s sour turn.
Several lawmakers agreed that Tuesday’s event — in which Trump attacked Biden’s family and Biden called Trump “this clown” — was a low point in a presidential race that has featured particularly harsh politicking.
“It was the least educational debate of any presidential debate I’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Biden, who began a train tour Wednesday through parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania, said he could “understand” if some voters were discouraged by the nastiness on display. He blamed Trump.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but the president of the United States conducting himself the way he did — I think it was just a national embarrassment,” Biden said.
Trump described it differently.
“I thought the debate last night was great,” he told reporters Wednesday before leaving for a rally in Minnesota. “We’ve gotten tremendous reviews on it.”
But while the Trump campaign argued that the president’s performance was historically great, several aides groused publicly about moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. Wallace repeatedly tried to get Trump to follow the debate rules, which call for each candidate to have two uninterrupted minutes to answer a question. Wallace called out Trump several times for interrupting Biden just seconds into his answers.
Wallace told the New York Times on Wednesday that the debate was a “terrible missed opportunity” and that he was “sad” with how it turned out. He said he had not expected Trump’s strategy would involve openly defying the rules against incessant interruptions.
“I never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did,” he said.
The debate commission praised Wallace for his efforts but acknowledged that changes would be needed ahead of future debates. One vice-presidential debate and two additional presidential debates are scheduled to take place in October.
It’s not clear what kind of rule changes could be effective, given Trump’s forceful personality and his view that breaking the rules helps him appeal to his base.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted a video clip of Fox News contributor Dan Bongino saying the president’s combative strategy was “executed brilliantly.”
“This is a base election — forget independents. It’s a base election,” said Bongino, a Trump ally. “So Trump is an apex predator. He’s the lion king. Trump went out there tonight and did what Trump does. He’s the shark in the ocean, and he acted like it. He lost no one from his base. No one.”
Even before the debate began, Trump and his campaign set the tone for an unprecedented level of hostility. The president challenged Biden to take a drug test ahead of the contest, and several of his campaign aides called for the former vice president’s ears to be examined for listening devices.
Trump and his allies have spent much of the past year declaring Biden as senile and slow, so part of the president’s rationale for constantly interrupting him was to make him come across as flustered and out of his depth, aides said. But some said the plan backfired, with Trump being seen as overly aggressive and Biden exceeding the low expectations that Trump and his aides set for him.
Television viewership plunged from four years ago, according to preliminary figures from Nielsen. An estimated 73.1 million people watched the debate, down significantly from four years ago.
Those tuning in from abroad weighed in with blistering criticism, including an editorial from Sweden’s leading newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, which said, “It was hard to believe that tonight’s battle was about who would lead the world’s superpower.”
The debate “was truly terrible,” Anna Soubry, a former British lawmaker, wrote on Twitter. “Whatever our views let’s agree and promise we will never allow British politics to plummet to such a level.”
While both candidates have agreed to participate in the debates scheduled for Oct. 15 and Oct. 22, there is pressure on all sides for changes to be made to the format before then.
Biden campaign advisers said that he would attend the next two debates, tamping down suggestions by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others that he should not engage with Trump.
Still, Biden’s advisers have expressed their frustrations with the commission as they seek changes ahead of the Oct. 15 town hall debate in Miami.
“Our posture is, the commission should probably fix this, and we hope they will,” said a Biden adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy.
Biden on Wednesday suggested that moderators could control the use of the candidate’s microphones.
“Joe Biden is looking forward to the town hall in Miami,” said Kate Bedingfield, a deputy campaign manager. “He’ll be focused on answering questions from the voters there, under whatever set of rules the commission develops to try to contain Donald Trump’s behavior.”
Trump’s campaign objected to the idea of changes.
“President Trump was the dominant force and now Joe Biden is trying to work the refs,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. “They shouldn’t be moving the goal posts and changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
Some lawmakers are not optimistic that any rule change can prevent the kind of constant cross talk and expressions of animosity that dominated Tuesday’s event.
“I’m not sure there’s a format change that solves that problem,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.).
Riley said that rather than trying to make quick fixes to a debate system ill-suited to Trump’s unique brand of showmanship, event organizers should shut things down for now.
“Could the debates serve a useful purpose? Yes, but not this year,” he said. “I do not believe that there is any set of circumstances — short of a kill button on Donald Trump’s microphone — that would allow these to proceed in any fruitful way.”
Matt Viser, Rick Noack and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.