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Hand-to-hand combat in Cleveland and nobody wins

With a little self-examination by Trump and Biden, the next debate can still deliver for voters

The country deserves  a real discussion of competing ideas between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and neither candidate met that responsibility Tuesday night, Winston writes.
The country deserves a real discussion of competing ideas between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and neither candidate met that responsibility Tuesday night, Winston writes. (Photo illustration by Pavlo Conchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

There is no other way to say it. Tuesday night’s presidential debate was the worst representation of the democratic process I’ve ever seen. 

Both candidates came loaded for bear and intent on substituting personal attacks for policy discussion. Joe Biden spent all his time either attacking President Donald Trump or trying not to offend his party’s powerful left wing, while soft-pedaling his positions on issues from violence on the streets to climate change to the Supreme Court.

Trump’s aggressive behavior only reinforced people’s exhaustion with a style they, including many of his own supporters, see as unpresidential. It was simply awful to watch, cringeworthy and coarse, with plenty of blame to go around for the two participants. 

Presidential debates are supposed to be an elevating battle of ideas, giving voters insight into each candidate’s vision for the country and the “content of their character.” Instead, both sides hurled insults at each other. Talked over each other. Ignored the rules and the moderator. 

Trump called Biden a liar and said there was “nothing smart about you.” Biden called the president of the United States a racist, a clown and a liar, all in one debate.  At one point, the two combatants actually argued over whose policies had killed more people. 

Under pressure

Biden was clearly the better prepared, with several canned responses on a few key issues, but the former vice president did less well when pressed on questions about Democratic Party calls to pack the Supreme Court, his support of the Green New Deal, his plans and positions on the COVID-19 virus response, and his son Hunter’s questionable business dealings.

Other than reiterating his plan to raise taxes, there was little from Biden on how he planned to bring the economy back, though, in a moment of self-delusion, he actually said of Trump, “We left him a booming economy, and he caused a recession.” Trump was right to call him out on that claim, which was as disingenuous as another of his over-the-top attacks — that the president is somehow personally responsible for the country’s 200,000 coronavirus deaths. In what seemed like a prepared line, Biden told Trump that the death toll “is what it is because you are what you are.” 

This extremely harsh line of attack shouldn’t have come as a surprise given what Biden said at a recent CNN town hall: “If the president had done his job, had done his job from the beginning, all the people would still be alive. All the people — I’m not making this up. Just look at the data. Look at the data.”

Actually, asking him to explain this would have been a good question. 

Biden seems to be blissfully unaware or intentionally misleading when it comes to the Trump administration’s aggressive efforts to defeat the coronavirus and mitigate its impact on people and business, especially small businesses. Despite the media’s constant negative spin, especially over the past six months, Trump has a record of accomplishment if he can effectively communicate it.  

Perhaps Trump’s most effective moment last night was when he told Biden, “I’ve done more in 47 months … than you’ve done in 47 years.” Biden didn’t have an answer for that and a number of other questions throughout the night.

A lost chance

But still, Trump blew a tremendous opportunity to use the debate to tell voters exactly what his administration has done to date on the two most important issues in the election — the coronavirus and the economy. He got so involved trying to overpower Biden that he failed to make a clear argument on how he has effectively handled what have been two of the most incredibly difficult challenges to ever face the nation. 

Whether Trump was overconfident or underprepared, his stream-of-consciousness responses, coupled with Biden and the moderator’s interruptions, failed to make what is a strong case for reelection based on the success of his policies.

Although a majority of Americans trust Trump over Biden on handling the economy, the president remains the underdog because, strategically, he needed to move the debate to the more favorable field of the economy, showing that the virus would be defeated and the country could then transition back to a fully operating economy. That didn’t happen last night. 

We’re now hearing calls for the campaigns to abandon the last two debates. I hope neither backs out. The Commission on Presidential Debates has already indicated it may change the format to “ensure a more orderly discussion.”

It’s not uncommon for a sitting president to have a bad first debate; in fact, it’s more the rule than the exception.  So with a little self-examination by both candidates, the next debate can still deliver for voters.

In March, after big primary wins, Biden pronounced, “Tonight, we are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity, and honor to the White House. That’s our ultimate goal.” Winning the nomination may have been one step forward, but his performance last night was two steps back. 

But Trump clearly didn’t win the day either. His poor performance overshadowed news this week that we’ve seen consumer confidence surge, with the biggest increase in 17 years. Additionally, the private sector created 749,000 new jobs last month, according to ADP, beating expectations. And Goldman Sachs now predicts GDP to hit 35 percent for the third quarter.

But the fight against COVID-19 is what people want to hear about, first and foremost, and the president needs to give them the facts in a concise, well-thought-out manner. As we have seen in a number of recent one-on-one interviews, Trump can be relaxed, thoughtful and knowledgeable when discussing both issues and his record. He needs to be that president at the next debate. 

What the country needs is a debate between the two nominees without insults and personal attacks, a real discussion of competing ideas. This is what the country deserves, and neither candidate met that responsibility Tuesday night.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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