Debate goes off the rails as Trump interrupts, Biden bickers in shoutfest

It was the presidential debate as barroom brawl, as television shoutfest, as exhausting insult derby.

To the frustration of moderator Chris Wallace, and perhaps much of the television audience, much of the Cleveland faceoff–and there’s no other way to put it–went off the rails.

Given the polarized nature of the country, few minds were likely changed unless the candidates were being graded on politeness.

Substance occasionally broke through, but by and large it was a night of sound and fury and, from start to finish, great frustration.

The first pivot point came after a mild exchange on the Supreme Court nominee, when Joe Biden said President Trump is in court to get rid of ObamaCare and Amy Coney Barrett has said the law is unconstitutional.

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Biden’s jab that 20 million people would lose their health insurance brought the debate onto his turf, clearly part of his game plan.

The second pivot point came when Trump accused Biden of wanting to strip health insurance from 180 million people, and when the Democrat said he had opposed Medicare for All, the president said “your party” is for “socialist” medicine. Those jabs, and the mentions of Bernie Sanders, were clearly at the core of Trump’s game plan.

The third pivot point came when Wallace tried to press Trump on whether he would protect people with preexisting conditions and the president scolded him: “I guess I’m debating you, not him.” With his later shots at “fake news,” and his complaint that Biden gets good press and he gets the bad variety, Trump unveiled the anti-media aspect of his strategy.

The fourth pivot point came when Trump increasingly began interrupting and hectoring Biden, and talking over him (as well as Wallace), and Biden had to rush his rebuttals: “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everyone knows he’s a liar.”

Biden soon had to interrupt just to stay in the game: “Folks, do you have any idea what this clown is doing?”

And when Trump broke in to demand whether Biden would pack the high court, Biden said derisively: “Keep yapping, man.”

And that was all within the first segment.

The initial impression, with Wallace struggling to keep control and repeatedly asking Trump to let the former vice president speak, was of Trump trying to dominate the stage. “Will you shut up, man?” an exasperated Biden said at one point.

With Trump trampling both men as if they were annoying White House reporters, his supporters were undoubtedly cheering the show of strength. But to many others, perhaps those skeptical of the president, the constant frowning and insults may have looked like bullying.

In some stretches, despite the seriousness of the topics, the jousting seemed juvenile. Biden, talking about the coronavirus, recalled his musing about “inject some bleach in your arm,” which Trump insisted was “sarcastic” (though he did not claim that at the time). When Biden said the president wasn’t being smart, Trump said dismissively: “Don’t ever use the word smart with me.”

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When Biden spoke of the importance of masks, Trump said his opponent had to hold small rallies because he couldn’t draw big crowds. At another point, Biden called the incumbent a “fool.”

It may have been entertaining, but it was less than enlightening.

Finally, after nearly an hour, Wallace halted the proceedings and appealed to the president to stop breaking in. When Trump said that should also apply to Biden, the Fox News anchor shot back: “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting.”

It didn’t work, and Wallace had to keep reminding Trump that his campaign had agreed to the rules. The bickering continued until the end.

The limits of the debate format were painfully apparent. When Wallace asked about the New York Times report that he paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, Trump said he paid millions, but the type of taxes was unclear.

When the president parried by charging that Hunter Biden took millions for work in China and Russia, Biden had one of his best moments, looking into the camera: “This is not about my family or his family, it’s about your family.”

One of Trump’s strongest moments was when he talked about how “we believe in law and order and you don’t”–and the strongest rebuttal Biden could muster is that violence is “never appropriate.”

But then both faltered under Wallace’s questioning. Asked if he ever called Portland’s mayor or Oregon’s governor to urge an end to the violence, Biden didn’t have much to say, accusing Trump of pouring gasoline on the fire.

And when asked if he would denounce white supremacists and militia groups, Trump deflected the question by blaming violence on “the left wing.”

The night ended as it began, with Trump and Biden arguing over the outcome of a disputed election and the president trying to get the last word as Wallace was trying to wrap it up.

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