The Editorial Board, USA TODAY
Published 1:03 a.m. ET Sept. 30, 2020 | Updated 6:52 a.m. ET Sept. 30, 2020
Our View: Donald Trump the bully and Joe Biden the acceptable stressed to Americans that the United States is infected with more than COVID-19.
In the midst of a deadly coronavirus pandemic, economic distress and racial turmoil, American voters deserved a serious exploration of the nation’s problems and the range of solutions. Instead, they got a chaotic insult fest that was like one of those awful 90-minute movies that leave the audience dumber than when it went into the theater.
Entering Tuesday night’s clash in Cleveland, it was clear what each presidential nominee had to accomplish.
For Democrat Joe Biden, the task was to present himself as an acceptable alternative for anyone turned off by President Donald Trump. Biden has spent his lengthy career being just that: acceptable, nothing extraordinary, but not too hot, not too cold; not too hard, not too soft; not too liberal, not too conservative. At 77, his remaining task was to prove he is not too old, or too solicitous of the extreme left.
For Trump, the goal was a bit more complex, and highly contrary to his nature. He had an opportunity not just to energize his base and heap congratulations on himself, but also to reach out to the relatively few undecided voters and outline a second-term agenda. He particularly needed to appeal to women, who, polls suggest, have deserted him in droves since he took office.
Biden was not great. He stumbled through sentences that sometimes stopped and then resumed in an adjacent lane. He sidestepped the issue of whether he would try to pack the Supreme Court in retaliation for Republicans ramming through a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. His description of his own environmental plan was barely coherent. He allowed himself to be drawn into name-calling, referring to the president as a “clown” at one point. In a normal debate, he might have been deemed the loser.
On Tuesday night, however, Biden was the relative adult in the room who on occasion made strong points — about how health insurance for millions rests in the balance and about how the economy is being held back by the administration’s inability to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control.
Adolescent bully in a cafeteria
As for Trump, he was nothing short of a horror show. He apparently didn’t get the memo about trying to expand his appeal. For months, he has seen his mission as turning out his core supporters and tearing down his Democratic opponent, attacking Biden as corrupt, a puppet of the far left and mentally incompetent.
Trump came in to Cleveland thinking that his job was talk over Biden whenever the former vice president was speaking. The effect was like an adolescent bully in a lunchroom cafeteria harassing people just to draw attention to himself. His outbursts were studded with nonsensical statistics and outright lies.
On matters of substance, to the extent that there were matters of substance, Trump was notable mostly for what he did not say rather than what he did say. Appallingly, the commander in chief again refused to clearly condemn white supremacists, or say he’d necessarily concede if the election is called against him.
Biden has long sought to frame the election as a referendum on Trump’s first term. To that end, after the debate his handlers touted his line that under Trump “we have become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided and more violent.” We suspect that another Biden line — “Will you shut up, man!” — will prove to be more enduring.
This was not the presidential debate that Trump needed to catch up with poll-leading Biden. More important, it was not the kind of debate that reassures America about the fate of its troubled democracy.
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