In the first presidential TV debate of the 2020 campaign, Donald Trump demonstrated his willingness – in case we were in any doubt – to break the rules. There were a few moments where Biden talked over Trump when it wasn’t his turn, but for the most part Trump repeatedly trampled over the rules of the debate in essentially yelling out his Twitter feed.
Each candidate was allocated two minutes to respond to a question, but with Trump repeatedly flouting this, Biden found himself pleading “Will you shut up, man?”, a slogan rushed on to T-shirts by his team before the debate was even over. Both candidates talked over moderator Chris Wallace and neither covered themselves in glory. Wallace himself seemed conscious that Trump wanted to break out of the constraints of the debate.
At one point, a visibly exasperated Biden said it was hard to follow Trump’s line of thought. “I can’t remember everything he was ranting about”, Biden said. With the election now just five weeks away, the question hanging in the air is which other rules will Trump be prepared to break? Kathleen Hunter at Bloomberg said: “The biggest takeaway from the unedifying spectacle might be Trump’s refusal again to commit to a peaceful transition.”
Into the spotlight
The value of a live conversation between two potential leaders can’t be overstated. Beyond the polish of a staged speech, this is a rare chance for voters to see how their candidate performs in the cut and thrust of debate. For now it’s just the other opponent, tomorrow it might be the leader of China. Voters want to know ‘how my guy fights in the heat of the moment.’ Candidates, usually, want to appear as strong yet fair, tough yet conciliatory.
These are complicated boxes to tick, it’s hard to get it right and easy to get it wrong. Errors can be costly. A seemingly innocent comment can quickly become a banana-peel, as Biden discovered in June 2019. Running out of time during the Democratic primary debates, the 76-year-old cut himself off mid-answer with the ill-chosen thought that: “My time is up.”
While debates are a fantastic platform for a candidate to showcase their personality and ideas, they also are one of the most precarious arenas for mistakes. In the social media age, the potential for a misstep to go viral is palpable. Both candidates have their flaws and in the heat of the moment mistakes are sometimes hard to avoid. After two decades advising UK and US CEOs and politicians on skills in leadership and communication, I was curious to see how Trump and Biden would compare.
Shameful and unedifying
The race for the White House has been stable for many months with Biden holding a consistent lead. Tactically, they might have had different strategies for their performance in front of the cameras. Having said that, there were big questions that both candidates needed to answer, and I imagine that both will have been well briefed by their respective teams.
Trump needed to change people’s opinions and bring more people across to his side, whereas Biden needed to prosecute a consistent case against the president. So far, so good. But from there, it all went terribly wrong. The well-planned strategies descended into chaos and writing a coherent analysis of what happened is almost impossible.
This was without doubt the most chaotic, shameful and unedifying experience I’ve witnessed in 28 years of watching political debates. Trump was very aggressive and interrupted relentlessly. Biden was thrown off his stride at the beginning but managed to land some useful points. He missed multiple opportunities to outline his case but to be fair, the president made it very difficult for him to concentrate on his message.
The first 30 minutes were lost to chaos as Wallace struggled to maintain control. It was genuinely difficult to understand what was being said as the interruptions were constant. If the idea was to communicate with the American people and showcase real leadership qualities, then it failed.
It was genuinely exhausting to stay with the thread of the exchanges as there seemed to be two and sometimes three people talking at once. This is not to say that the fault lies equally. Biden was, in the main, a spectator who oscillated from shaking his head to saying, “That’s not true”. Trump reeled off his greatest hits but decided to take the gloves off in a way that appeared callous and nasty. For all Biden’s shortcomings as a debater (and there are many), he came across as someone who cares about bringing people together.
All of this may ultimately mean nothing in light of an exchange late in the debate where Wallace asked the president about a peaceful transfer of power. He was asked to denounce neo-fascist groups, and instead of kicking the ball into an open goal the president refused to denounce them. Instead he told them to “stand back and stand-by”, a frightening dog whistle that looked to encourage violence if the election did not go his way.
My conclusion is that Trump will not be able to expand his voter share based on that performance. Biden was a bit flat but relatable as he regularly looked into the camera and tried to bypass the noise by talking directly to the viewers. We will see in the days to come how the polling changes. I’m not sure where the debates go from here as the format seemed to be broken. After such an unedifying display, I crawled into bed, still scratching my head as to what I had just witnessed. Perhaps, more will become clear in the debates ahead. We’ll have to wait until October 15 and 22 to find out.