By Ramesh Ponnuru / Bloomberg Opinion
Some political debates have highlights. The first presidential debate this year had only lowlights.
Joe Biden called President Trump “a clown.” Trump said Biden wasn’t smart. Biden said Trump “has been a fool.” And on it went, in what must have been the nastiest presidential debate in U.S. history. The most common word in the transcript will be “[crosstalk].”
Whose attacks landed best? The Trump campaign’s central critiques of Biden are that he is old and out of it, that he has spent too much time in D.C., and that he is too weak to resist his party’s left wing. Biden had a couple of senior moments during the debate. He forgot some of the details of his health care plan: The new government insurance plan he wants to create would not be limited to Medicaid patients, as he said. He flip-flopped twice on the Green New Deal in the span of a few sentences. But there was no devastating, memorable moment of befuddlement. He also had some crisp answers, and even a few good lines. (On covid: “It is what it is because you are who you are.”)
Biden also, for the most part, managed to avoid Trump’s traps, helped by how painfully obvious Trump was in setting them. The president said that Biden wouldn’t say “law and order,” so Biden said law, order and justice. Biden ducked the question of whether he supports packing the Supreme Court, on the grounds that he doesn’t want the topic to dominate the campaign, which is an excuse that will always apply to inconvenient issues. Trump, and moderator Chris Wallace, let it slide.
The Biden campaign’s criticisms of Trump are mostly focused on his character: He cares too much about himself and not enough about the country, he is divisive and he is — not to put too fine a point on it — a jerk. Trump often seemed determined to prove Biden’s points. He couldn’t bring himself to say a kind word about Biden’s late son Beau, or to forcefully condemn white supremacists (an issue he had to know would come up). He couldn’t even urge his supporters to stay peaceful in the event he loses. If you are a voter who worries about the issues that Biden raises about Trump, the president didn’t set your mind at ease.
If you’re a voter who wanted a clear sense of where each candidate wanted to take the country, on the other hand, you were out of luck. Neither of these candidates is policy-driven, and it showed. The Left has a clear agenda, but as Biden pointed out, he beat it soundly during the primaries.
Who won the debate depends on where the candidates stood at the start. If Biden is comfortably ahead, as the polls generally suggest, then Trump needed the debate to change the race and it didn’t. If, on the other hand, the greater enthusiasm of many of Trump’s supporters and the flaws of the polls make the race more competitive than it looks, the president is just as much in the hunt as he was.
The debate changed nothing, except to diminish the country’s dignity just a little bit more.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.