Oh, Yeah, There Was a Presidential Debate Last Week

Donald Trump’s hospitalization after testing positive for COVID-19 has dominated recent headlines, but we shouldn’t forget his disastrous debate performance against Joe Biden.(Photo Credit: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House/Public Domain)

By now, you’re aware that Donald Trump, Melania Trump, three Republican senators, and other members of Trump’s circle have tested positive for COVID-19.

The president was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and has since left. At this writing, though, he still seems to be pretty darn sick. It’s hard to know what to think when the White House is less than forthcoming on matters of his health and, you know, has a penchant for lying. Still, while the battle against COVID hasn’t been easy for Trump, it doesn’t appear that he will die from contracting the virus—much to the chagrin of liberals and other conscientious objectors to his presidency.

Noting how Trump and his enablers play fast and loose with the truth, some public figures, Michael Moore among the notables, suggested he could’ve been faking it, that this all could’ve been some sort of elaborate hoax. While I was not inclined to make that leap—mostly because I don’t think Trump et al. are competent enough to orchestrate something like that—I could pardon those dabbling in conspiracy theories, especially after the utter debacle that was the first (and hopefully last) presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

If you watched the debate, I’m sorry for your sake, though I suppose there’s some solidarity to be had in the shared pain we experienced. At only 90 minutes, it still felt too long, and watching with other leftists, we felt a communal longing for some sort of drug to make the proceedings more bearable.

If you skipped the debate to watch something with more redeeming value like, say, playoff baseball or paint drying, what was so bad about it? Well, dear reader, let’s delve into it, though I warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The dashes on the transcript denote stops and starts

Before we even to get to the topics raised by moderator Chris Wallace of FOX News fame, let’s address the prevailing theme of the night: crosstalk. There was an untold number of interruptions during this debate, mostly on the part of Mr. Trump, and when he did insert himself in the conversation, it was usually for the purpose of digressing or redirecting the discussion in some disingenuous way.

Mr. Biden, though not rattled by Trump’s disregard for debate convention, was clearly irritated by it, referring to his opponent as a “clown” at one point and asking him point blank to “shut up, man.” If any children were watching, they certainly did not receive a lesson on how to interact with others in a respectful way.

Re the Notorious A.C.B. (yes, some people are trying to make that a thing)

With that behind us, let’s get to the, ahem, substance of the debate. Wallace’s first question got right to the topic on the minds of many: the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

Trump, speaking first, basically defended her nomination by saying that Republicans won and they had every right to fill that seat. He then stuck his tongue out and made antlers with his hands, waving his fingers in an instigative manner.

Biden, in his rebuttal, replied that the American people should have a say on how that vacant seat is filled by who they elect to be president and vice president. He didn’t really iterate why Coney Barrett’s nomination was wrong insomuch as he speculated what doom her confirmation might mean for the Affordable Care Act and the precedent set by Roe v. Wade (and deservedly so).

Trump and Biden then basically quibbled on how many millions of Americans would be disadvantaged by the other’s health plan until Wallace finally and mercifully moved onto the next topic.

Let’s talk about our crappy healthcare plans that aren’t Medicare for All

With the ACA already on the lips of the combatants, the moderator pivoted to their healthcare plans. Starting again with Trump, Wallace asked the Republican Party nominee, like, do you have a plan? Trump, taking umbrage was all, of course, I have a plan: lower drug prices. Apparently, that’s it. Cheaper drugs.

Biden wasn’t off the hook either. Wallace followed his pointed inquiry of Trump by asking the Democratic nominee why his public option wouldn’t destroy private insurance. Biden responded by saying that the public option would only be for those people who qualify for Medicaid. Trump tried to say that Biden was in cahoots with Bernie Sanders and his socialized (!) medicine, but Biden inferred that because he beat Bernie in the primary, he couldn’t be promoting such a plan. Because that’s how that works.

Trump replied by saying “Obamacare” is a disaster and that premiums are too high. Biden, in a nod to Wallace’s original question, pointed out that Trump still doesn’t have a healthcare plan. Trump countered by babbling on about the individual mandate and not wanting to be blamed for running a bad healthcare plan and wanting “to help people.” Evidently, that is why he killed the individual mandate and wants to tear the ACA down with nothing to replace it. Are you following? Good. Now please explain it to me.

On handling COVID-19, which totally has no relevance to Trump having to go to the hospital whatsoever

“Why should the American people trust you more than your opponent to deal with this public health crisis going forward?”

This was the question Chris Wallace posed to the debaters, and Joe Biden was up first. Biden, to his credit, gave a solid answer, though give Donald Trump an assist for, well, doing a terrible job. A key highlight was Biden’s attention to Trump’s admission that he knew how serious a threat COVID represented back in February, but that he downplayed the danger. Now, more than half a year later, his administration still doesn’t have a plan.

Trump, apparently of the opinion that more than 200,000 dead Americans is a great success, extolled his decision to close off travel from mainland China—a move that critics judged to be late in coming and haphazard at that. He went on to further toot his own horn, carrying on about how Dr. Anthony Fauci and various Democratic governors said he did a “phenomenal job.” I’m not sure who these governors are, but if they did feed Trump’s ego, they probably just said that so they would actually get the relief they requested.

From there, Wallace turned to talk of a COVID-19 vaccine and its potential availability. Faced with the insistence of CDC head Robert Redfield that a vaccine would not be widely available until summer of next year, Trump professed that, per companies like Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, a vaccine will be ready “very soon.” Biden was all, like, yeah, right, you dum-dum. And Trump was all, like, your college grades sucked. Really. He talked about Biden’s academic performance while in college. Because that’s relevant now.

Because this is 2020, the year without joy, even more about coronavirus

To reopen or not reopen? That is the question.

Trump said yes, citing hurting businesses, and expressed the belief that Democratic governors refusing to open their states back up are playing politics, intentionally hurting the economy to make him look bad. Biden, meanwhile, said no, not without a plan and without the money for PPE and sanitization measures.

Trump then said, well, Joe, why don’t you talk to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer? And Biden said, shush (literally, he asked if Trump would “shush for a minute”), if you listened to them, you might actually know what you’re doing. Biden, as we all know, sternly opposed to malarkey over the course of the campaign, was having none of it.

Following the shushing, Wallace steered the conversation to the topic of masks and rallies. Trump was all, like, masks? Masks? I love masks! If I need to wear a mask, I do! Right now, I don’t need one. That guy over there, though? He’s kind of a mask freak, if you ask me. And Biden was all, like, masks and social distancing save lives.

Which is when Wallace interceded on the subject of campaign events, underscoring the different approaches these men have taken. And Trump was all, like, hey, man, my supporters are packed together, but I have my rallies outside. Ol’ Sleepy Joe doesn’t hold big rallies because he can’t get anyone to attend. And Biden was, like, nuh-uh. And Trump was, like, yuh-huh. If it seems like I’m being hyperbolic, I am exaggerating, of course, but only to an extent. Many of these exchanges were childish, especially on Donald “My Rallies Are Bigger Than Yours” Trump’s part.

The point at which Trump was probably very glad the debate shifted to the economy

“You gotta open the states up. It’s not fair. You’re talking about almost like being in prison.”

So said Mr. Trump, who, if he actually had to spend time in prison, might not be so apt to use that metaphor. The debate shifted toward talk of the economy, with Wallace asking each candidate to explain their concept of the recovery, whether as a V-shaped recovery (Trump) or a K-shaped recovery (Biden).

In Trump’s mind, he was instrumental in building the world’s greatest economy—and then came along the “China plague.” No, seriously, he called it that. Now Joe Biden wants to shut down the economy. And what will that do? Depression! Divorce! Alcoholism! Drugs! Look, I care about the people. Let’s open things back up.

Amtrak Joe from Scranton, PA, on the other hand, spoke to the existence of a K-shaped recovery in which millionaires and billionaires have made hundreds of billions since the start of the COVID crisis and small-town, working-class Americans have felt the pinch. Also, that guy only paid $750 in taxes. The nerve!

Trump, taken aback by such an accusation, insisted he paid millions of dollars in taxes in the first two years of his presidency. Biden responded by asking, well, can we see your tax returns? And Trump was all, like, welllllllll, these are very complicated returns. And then Wallace chimed in to the effect of come on, dude, tell us how much you paid in taxes in 2016 and 2017. And Trump was all, like, I just told you: millions. Besides, don’t blame me for the tax code. Blame Senator/VP Biden over there, he’s the worst.

Biden said, no, you’re the worst.

Chris Wallace then smacked his head repeatedly on the table, whereupon he blacked out briefly before regaining consciousness and continuing to moderate the debate.

More on taxes, because nothing gets Americans fired up like talk about the tax code

Wallace moved to asking Biden whether his proposed tax increases for high earners would hurt the economy. And Biden, seemingly waiting for the chance, started unveiling his economic plan. Whereupon Mr. Wallace sprayed Biden in the face with water, shouting, “Taxes, Mr. Vice President! Taxes!” Biden, newly reoriented, vowed to raise the corporate tax rate. Trump countered by professing that when he lowered taxes, the economy boomed. BOOMED!

That was when Wallace smugly drew from a freshly-lit cigarette, paused for a moment, smiled, turned to Trump, and said, “Actually, Mr. President—Obama’s economy was better.” And Trump was all, like, the f**k did you just say to me? And Biden, with a twinkle in his eye, was all, like, you heard the man! And Trump was all, like, let’s talk about Hunter and Burisma. And Biden was all, like, you’re full of beans! And then the moderator blew an air horn, signaling the end of the segment, while Biden got his brass knuckles ready, silently and unobtrusively.

The segment in which a bunch of old white guys talk about race

“Why should voters trust you, rather than your opponent, to deal with the race issues facing this country over the next four years?”

Such was the question posed to Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Biden, answering first, spoke vaguely of equity, equality, and decency. (If you had “decency” on your presidential debate Bingo card, you can mark that space off now.) He, unlike his opponent, did not try to “both sides” the events at Charlottesville. He did not authorize the use of tear gas against peaceful protestors so he could have a photo op.

Trump responded by—look, I could tell you what he said, but it’s a bunch of nonsense. He’s supported by law enforcement (not helping your cause, bub). Biden’s a tool of the “radical left.” (Does anyone have a Bingo yet?) The people want law and order. Sleepy Joe’s afraid. Are you going to cry, Joe? Huh? Are you going to cry? Waaaaah!

Wallace then steered the discussion to the Breonna Taylor case and none of the officers involved being charged with homicide, asking Biden if there is a separate and unequal system of justice for blacks in America. And Biden was all, like, duh! Biden, to be clear, called for accountability for police who have done wrong but prefaced this by saying that there are “some bad apples” among the bunch. He conveniently ignores the idea that, as the saying goes, a few bad apples spoil the bunch, but we wouldn’t want to upset the men and women in blue, would we?

Trump fired back all, like, so you’re cool with looting and rioting and burning things down? And Wallace was all, not so fast, bruh. You directed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training. To which Trump replied, “Because bruh, that shit is racist!” And Wallace was all, like, WTF, mate? And Biden, unprompted, tearfully recalled the prejudice he felt as a young Irish Catholic boy in Scranton. Tired. Poor. Yearning to breathe free. Biden then lifted his lamp beside the golden door. America.

And then—sigh—this went on for another eight minutes. I’ll give you some quick notes. Wallace asked about the increase in homicides this summer, which Trump again tried to blame on Democratic leaders, except that it has happened in Republican-led jurisdictions too. Wallace asked about “reimaging policing” and Black Lives Matter, and Biden started talking about community policing, but that got sublimated into arguments about who was or wasn’t calling for defunding the police and who would or wouldn’t hold violent offenders accountable. Oh, and fun times, Trump refused to explicitly condemn the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group. Cool, cool.

Oh, wowthey’re actually talking about climate change

Yes—this happened! Wallace, recounting Trump’s greatest hits, so to speak, on the subject of the environment (arguing against the influence of climate change on the wildfires in the West, pulling out of the Paris Agreement, rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations), asked the president what he believes on this subject matter. Trump answered with his usual word vomit, blaming California for not managing its forests better and not really addressing the issue at hand.

Wallace, it should be noted, pressed Trump on why, if he truly believes in the science on climate change, he would roll back standards published during Barack Obama’s tenure. Trump, saying the thinking part out loud, justified his actions with the lower upfront price tag associated with certain types of energy. Because who needs a planet to enjoy those savings, amirite?

Biden, when confronted with Trump’s insistence that ending the use of fossil fuels and reaching zero net emission of greenhouse gases would tank the economy, rejected his rival’s position, emphasizing how a commitment to renewable energy would create jobs, not cost them. It would also save money currently spent on disaster relief by mitigating the damage done by the effects of climate change. Alas, when Trump tried to pin the spooky, scary socialist Green New Deal on Biden, Biden flatly rejected any allegiance to that framework. But hey, this line of questioning was more than I could’ve hoped for from this debate before it began.

Trump doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “election integrity”

“How will you reassure the American people that the next President will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Oh, boy—that’s a doozy. Biden was up first and basically rambled his way to an exhortation of the public to vote. As for Trump, well, he—sigh. He said, in his rambling way, that there is going to be “a fraud like you’ve never seen” and that the election is “rigged.” You know, presumably, unless he wins.

After a brief interlude in which Biden waxed philosophical on potential involvement by the courts, expressing his concern that any court would be invoked at all, especially a Supreme Court with the likes of Amy Coney Barrett on it, Wallace dropped the question on the minds of many: “Will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?” Trump did not. Biden did.


I referred to this debate earlier as a debacle. Other critics were even less charitable. Dana Bash of CNN notably referred to it as a “shit show”—on live TV, no less. Her colleague Jake Tapper called it “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” Man, these CNN personalities are so dang colorful with their metaphors!

As one might imagine, some critical responses would seem to carry more weight than others. Professional lunkhead Sean Hannity seemed to relish a format that was more pugilistic than political. Journalist/author Jill Filipovic, meanwhile, grew nostalgic for the days when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee, wishing she could’ve been the one to tell Donald Trump to shut up. #feminism

Regardless of who won—if you ask me, it was Biden in a landslide, carrying the day by not self-destructing—the whole affair was an ugly one. At one point, Chris Wallace had to reproach the Republican Party nominee for not adhering to the rules established for the debate. At another point, Trump went after Hunter Biden for personal issues he faced while Biden mourned the loss of his other son, Beau. If that’s not ghoulish behavior, I don’t know what is.

In all, the first presidential debate was widely panned, including its moderator’s performance. In deference to Mr. Wallace, however, I don’t know how much he could’ve done anyway. He didn’t have a gavel to bang or the ability to mute Trump’s microphone when he violated the rules. The man’s a reporter, not a miracle worker.

At the end of the day, President Trump’s health is still the biggest story of the past week and change. The disastrous parade of interruptions and digressions that was this debate, however, shouldn’t get buried, for it was an insult to the American people. We, the American people, deserve better, and sick or not, Trump deserves the lion’s share of blame for how it turned out.

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