A Repulsive and Pointless Debate
“Biden came to win a debate, and Trump came to win WrestleMania.” Those were the thoughts of National Review’s Jim Geraghty, after watching last night’s contemptuous presidential debate in Cleveland.
As someone who’s watched more than his fair share of professional wrestling over the years (mostly in my youth, but still on occasion), my initial thought was that Jim nailed it. After all, Wrestlemania is a loud, outlandish spectacle of the absurd… which is exactly what Trump worked hard to assure last night's event would be.
But here’s where I’ll quibble just a bit with the metaphor. From a scripted story-line perspective, “winning” Wrestemania ultimately means winning a wrestling match. It’s about achieving a hard-fought victory over your opponent, and taking home the prize. That’s the choreographed payoff that wrestling fans put down big bucks to see.
That's not the kind of thing we saw from Trump at the debate. Instead, we watched the equivalent of a pro wrestler running out the clock on a 90-minute match by trying to keep his opponent from so much as entering the ring (while blowing off and shouting over the referee’s repeated warnings). If last night were the main event of Wrestlemania, wrestling fans in attendance and watching on pay-per-view would have booed in unison and demanded their money back.
Heck, I wanted my money back, and I watched the thing for free.
Now, to be fair, the debate wasn’t a total disaster. For example, I was pleasantly surprised during that first question about Trump and the Republicans moving, just a few weeks prior to the election, to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s old Supreme Court seat. Trump seemed well prepared, and answered with what I thought was the winning, constitutionally-sound argument. Biden’s answer wasn’t bad either, approaching the issue with a referendum argument.
For about 15 minutes or so, I was hopeful that Americans might actually hear a productive, perhaps even enlightening, debate over competing visions, from two men vying for the honor of leading our country for the next four years.
Boy, was I wrong.
Trump quickly fell back into his much more comfortable role as heckler-in-chief, constantly breaking into Biden’s allotted time, changing the subject, tossing out overly personal insults, assigning false positions and rhetoric, and making it virtually impossible for the former vice president to lay out any kind of substantive argument. In that regard, it may have been an effective strategy, at least at times. A good example was when Trump cut off Biden’s attack-line on Russia placing bounties on U.S. troops, and the president remaining silent about it. With Biden's train of thought ruined by Trump's interruption, the point was never returned to.
That's, of course, assuming that what Trump did was even part of strategy.
Either way, it’s hard to miss the irony. Trump and his team had been insisting for weeks that “Sleepy Joe’s” debate performance would falter and crumble under the weight of Biden’s own senility. Only, that didn’t happen. It might have, had Trump given Biden more opportunities to make a serious mistake — one that Trump could effectively exploit to rack up some political points. But that’s clearly not the direction Trump’s instincts took him in; the president didn’t even bother to go after some patently false statements and contradictions that Biden did manage to spit out.
Whether it was planned ahead of time, or on the fly, President Trump decided that letting Biden self-destruct wasn’t going to work, and the answer instead was to execute a hostile takeover of the debate stage (format and agreed-upon conditions be damned).
The casualties of that takeover were the American people. I can’t imagine anyone watching the debate came away with anything other than a headache. Heck, I’m guessing a lot of people turned it off about 20 minutes in, just to spare themselves a headache.
If you think a missed opportunity like that is helpful to a candidate who’s a clear underdog at this point in the race, think again. And if you think that Biden losing his cool at times, and saying things like, "Would you shut up, man?” hurt him with voters, it's probably worth considering how many people watching the debate at home were saying pretty much the same thing.
And then there was — to use another professional wrestling metaphor — the third man in the ring: Chris Wallace. Wallace has taken heat from both sides for his performance last night as the debate’s moderator.
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell complained that Wallace allowed Trump to “bulldoze” Biden.
MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace argued that “Chris Wallace did not act as a moderator,” and added that “he didn’t hold [Trump’s] feet to the fire” in regard to the debate rules. “He did not have control of the debate stage for much of the evening,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“[He] didn’t remind the president he was violating the rules until 1 hour and 13 minutes into the event.”
On the other side of the aisle, media-conservatives (including some of Wallace’s own Fox News colleagues) took aim at him for, in their view, working in concert with Biden.
Fox and Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade tweeted during the debate, “Why is @JoeBiden allowed to interrupt? @realDonaldTrump is not.” He added in a separate tweet (that has since been deleted), “Looks like 2 v 1 at times tonight.”
The Five’s Greg Gutfeld retweeted, and replied in agreement with, criticisms of Wallace from conservative blogger Stephen Miller… including this one:
…and this one:
Mollie Hemingway, a regular on Fox News's Special Report, complained that the “candidates should have been allowed to debate.” And Fox News regular, Dana Loesch, tore into Wallace throughout the night:
Wallace's constant interruptions? Good grief.
It goes without saying that Wallace was in an extraordinarily tough position last night. As Geraghty wrote in his column, “no moderator ever faced a challenge like this before.”
The fact of the matter is that one of the debaters repeatedly violated the rules that both sides had agreed on, prior to the debate. Complaining about Wallace appropriately reining that debater in, and blaming him for the sh*t show we witnessed last night, is absurd.
Was Wallace perfect in the role? No. Throughout the chaos, as incessant cross-talk consumed the stage, I think there were times when he could have blown past Trump’s bluster and pressed Biden to answer certain unanswered questions (like he did with Trump). Of course, that’s easy for me to say, being that I wasn't entangled in the pandemonium, and trying to restore order (while keeping one eye on the clock).
All in all, I think Wallace did a very good job, and much of the criticism he's receiving is unreasonable. In fact, I’m not sure anyone else could have done any better under the circumstances.
Regardless of how frustrated one is with our viable choices in this presidential election, and the media’s often disproportional treatment of those choices, the fact of the matter is that last night’s completely unproductive debacle, during a very serious and sensitive time in our nation’s history, was caused by one person. And it wasn’t Biden or Wallace.
If you think what happened in Cleveland was bad for Trump, blame him.