An undebatable debate debacle

The Wall Street Journal watched Tuesday night’s presidential debate so you didn’t have to (I announced volleyball on the radio instead):

No one expected a Lincoln-Douglas debate, but did it have to be a World Wrestling Entertainment bout? Which may be unfair to the wrestlers, who are more presidential than either Donald Trump or Joe Biden sounded in their first debate Tuesday night.

The event was a spectacle of insults, interruptions, endless cross-talk, exaggerations and flat-out lies even by the lying standards of current U.S. politics. Our guess is that millions of Americans turned away after 30 minutes, and we would have turned away too if we didn’t do this for a living.

Mr. Trump no doubt wanted to project strength and rattle Mr. Biden, but he did so by interrupting him so much that he wouldn’t let Mr. Biden talk long enough even to make a mistake. The President bounced from subject to subject so frequently that it was hard to figure out what he hoped to say beyond that Joe Biden is controlled by the Democratic left. Even when moderator Chris Wallace asked a question that played to the strengths of his record—such as on the economy—Mr. Trump couldn’t stick to the theme without leaping to attack Mr. Biden.

The former Vice President wasn’t much better, interrupting nearly as much. And for the candidate who says he wants to bring people together, he was ready with his own name-calling. He called Mr. Trump a “racist,” a “clown,” and told him to “shut up, man.” He spun out falsehoods as fast as the President, notably in asserting that 100 million people would be vulnerable to losing their health insurance due to pre-existing conditions. The Obama Administration set up a special fund for pre-existing conditions in the transition to ObamaCare, and the takers were only in the thousands. Mr. Trump didn’t know enough to be able to rebut him.

No one won this fiasco, but Mr. Biden did succeed in passing the test of appearing coherent for 90 minutes. Mr. Trump had done him the favor of calling his mental capacity into question for months, so expectations were low. Mr. Biden passed that bar, albeit in highly scripted fashion.

The former Vice President kept his focus on Mr. Trump’s divisive political style and management of the pandemic. The truth is that Mr. Biden hasn’t offered anti-virus policies that are much different than Mr. Trump’s, except for a mandate to wear masks, which he has since walked back. His indictment is mainly about Mr. Trump’s temperament and narcissism, which Mr. Trump reinforced with his interruptions and “you’re worse” taunts. Mr. Trump succeeded again in making his pandemic policies sound worse than they are.

The benign explanation for the President’s performance is that like other incumbents in their first debates he was overconfident and underprepared. A less benign view is that he grew flustered as the debate went on and lost his cool and whatever focus he had at the start. He was so scattershot with his answers that he rarely offered a sustained case for his own policies. When Mr. Biden said Mr. Trump had called veterans “suckers” and “losers,” Mr. Trump didn’t refute it but brought up Hunter Biden.

Mr. Wallace had a hard task as the two men brawled, but he didn’t help by injecting himself too much into the debate. His verbose questions often took one side of the issue, as if playing gotcha in his Sunday interview program, when the point should have been to solicit information to help voters.

We hope for better when the two vice presidential candidates debate next week. Maybe one of them will act like a President.

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