Biden campaign faces questions about whether he should skip next debatesSeptember 30, 2020
The moment Joe Biden’s first debate against Donald Trump ended, his campaign was already confronted with questions about whether it should be his last.
In the two men’s first head-to-head matchup, Trump bullied moderator Chris Wallace, blew past his time limits and repeatedly and loudly interrupted Biden.
It resulted in a mockery of presidential debates, growing so chaotic that it was impossible to follow entire segments.
The Biden campaign immediately shot down any notion the former vice president wouldn’t show up to debates in Miami and Nashville next month.
But some Democrats wondered whether Biden should only participate if there are more stringent conditions placed on Trump to keep the night from devolving into chaos.
In a call with reporters after the debate, the campaign was asked whether it would commit to the next two debates and whether it would seek changes with the debate commission. Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said only that the campaigns are in ongoing talks with the debate commission and “I would imagine there would be some additional conversations” going forward.
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a top Biden surrogate, said it wasn’t obvious Biden should commit to future debates.
“I’m going to leave that to the campaign,” he said. But if the point of debates is to allow the candidates to articulate a message to viewers, Coons said, Tuesday’s fracas failed the test.
“It was very hard to follow what was being said, and President Trump showed not just disrespect to the moderator, but to the American people who tuned in trying to figure out what his plans are,” Coons said. “The point of the debate is for the American people to make a decision, informed by hearing from the two candidates on what’s your record, what are your values? Joe Biden came prepared to respect the American people. Donald Trump did not.”
Simon Rosenberg, a former senior consultant for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Biden’s campaign should seek rule changes for the next two debates, on Oct. 15 and Oct. 22. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris square off on Oct. 7.
“Of course, Biden and Harris should keep debating. But they should work to make sure Trump can’t repeat his performance tonight,” Rosenberg said. “Moderators should have the ability to cut off his mic and split screens should be limited. Let them talk to the American people without the other facial expressions and interruptions registering.”
Trump aides said they relished the freewheeling debate, saying it benefited the incumbent’s style. But they also reserved criticism for the debate moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace.
“Chris Wallace jumped in too often to save Biden from himself when he had backed himself into a corner or couldn’t come up with an answer,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh.
People close to the president said he was jubilant upon exiting the stage, and many in his inner circle were thrilled with his performance. Trump dominated with his aggressive approach, they argued.
But other Republicans worried that Trump’s aggressiveness won’t play well with undecided voters or suburbanites who are exhausted with his chaotic approach to governing.
Trump was “too hot,” said Scott Jennings, a top political aide in the George W. Bush White House. The president, he added, didn’t give Biden “enough room to dig the holes.”
“Trump is the biggest dog in the junkyard. He’s proved that. He’s louder, ruder and appears tougher. The job for Biden tonight was to seem strong enough to do the job and Trump took direct aim at that,” one longtime Republican strategist said. “He’s a bully. But after he kicked sand in Biden’s face, Biden needed to be stronger and he just wasn’t.”
He added, however, that Trump’s dominance came at a cost. If the president was looking for ways to lose more women voters, the GOP strategist said, “He accomplished that tonight.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped Trump prep for the debate, also described the president as “too hot” for his own good.
“You come in and decide you want to be aggressive and I think that was the right thing,” Christie said on ABC. But “with all that heat, you lose the light. That potentially can be fixed. Maybe, maybe not. We will have to see.”
The theme of complete mayhem dominated the night, with Wallace castigating Trump for disregarding the guidelines of the evening.
“Sir, wait — you’ve agreed to the two minutes, so let him have it,” Wallace warned the president at one point.
And then again: “Mr. President, your campaign agreed both sides get two-minute answers. Uninterrupted. Your side agreed. Observe what your campaign agreed to.”
“He never keeps his word,” Biden interjected.
Veteran Democratic strategist Pete Giangreco called the debate a “sideways, 50-car rollover crash of a debate that will change absolutely nothing. Advantage Biden.”
But he warned it was not a good look to attempt to alter any rules moving forward. “You don’t win a game by complaining about the officiating. Show up and play. Joe Biden showed up.”
Biden’s campaign portrayed Trump as “angry and tired,” and Biden as presidential. The campaign noted that ActBlue, the Democratic online fundraising platform, shattered a record for the most money raised in a single hour, recording $3.8 million in donations during the debate.
“Trump offered only interruptions and lies,” Bedingfield said. “Trump was desperate and weak and angry. He’s losing the race and tonight he lost his temper.”