Last week’s first “debate” between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a mess. More than 70 million people tuned in to watch. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to hear the candidates discuss their views concerning the significant issues and challenges facing our country. Instead, they were treated to a spectacle akin to mud wrestling. While the subsequent news of Trump’s coronavirus infection has obscured some of the debate focus, the lingering impressions are painful.
The two combatants hurled insults at one another, talked over each other, ignored the rules of engagement to which they supposedly agreed prior to debate night and refused to answer direct questions from moderator Chris Wallace. By the time the 90-minute ordeal was mercifully concluded, a dumbstruck electorate was left shaking its head, wondering what had become of political civility, respect and common manners.
Reaction and prognostication was quick. Most pundits were appalled, and almost all were disappointed. This was not how we expect presidential candidates to behave. Nonetheless, each side’s advocates found aspects of their candidate’s performance (or the other side’s failures) to cheer the faithful and rally support. Those celebrations were a forced effort to make much out of nothing. The whole ordeal was an embarrassment.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsored the Sept. 29 debacle, quickly announced that changes would be made to the format of the remaining debates “to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.” We certainly hope so. But it isn’t at all clear what those changes will be or whether they will make any difference, since there are fundamental behavioral concerns that are difficult to legislate. We have no interest in reliving the pain of watching two septuagenarians behave like schoolyard, preteen bad boys.
The principal offender in virtually every respect was Trump. He was aggressive and bullying from the start, including his incessant and disrespectful interrupting of Biden and Wallace 71 times during the course of the debate. But Biden also had his moments. His own interruptions, and his “Will you shut up, man” retort, his reference to Trump as a “clown” and “the worst president America ever had,” while unquestionably provoked, were disconcerting. We expected better from the normally gentlemanly former vice president.
Unfortunately, it was the misbehavior of the candidates that became the story, rather than the substance of what they said or refused to say. There are a number of serious issues on which Trump and Biden disagree. We wanted to hear them discuss those issues and respond to each other’s challenges and concerns. But that never happened. Instead, following Biden’s refusal to answer a question about Supreme Court “packing,” and continuing with Trump’s conspiracy-infused refusal to agree to be bound by election results and bizarre failure to denounce white supremacists, we were left with fragmented and disjointed answers, which were overshadowed by bad behavior.
It is possible that both candidates will behave better in the coming debates. We certainly hope so. But if not, perhaps we should discontinue the debates. We don’t need to further embarrass ourselves and our country.