Chaos in Cleveland

During Tuesday night’s first presidential debate, I posted real-time analysis of style on Facebook—President Trump interrupting former Vice President Biden and moderator Chris Wallace calling him out for it; Biden interrupting Trump and Wallace rarely stopping him; Wallace not allowing Trump to rebut Biden; Biden losing his temper, and so forth.

My take on the stylistic elements of the debate:

Trump was substantive, knowledgeable, and had his facts and figures at hand. He did interrupt Biden too aggressively, however, and didn’t allow Biden to hang himself.

Biden recited his shallow talking points well enough to impress low-information voters. On the other hand, he lost his temper several times and repeatedly disavowed the “Green New Deal” and other policies in the DNC platform (and on his own website), which will alienate the Bernie-supporting lefties.

Though Wallace promised to be “invisible” he utterly failed to control the open discussion format and asked several leading and tendentious questions of Trump instead of questions that were open-ended and neutral.

Having gone through the transcript, there are several serious substantive problems with how Wallace conducted the proceedings, and himself, that need to be addressed—though the transcript also substantiates the stylistic issues I had highlighted Tuesday  night.

Wallace often asked a question together with a follow-up, without allowing additional time to answer.

In the opening segment on the Supreme Court, he asked both candidates two questions. First: “Why are you right in the argument you make and your opponent wrong [about when to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg]?” Second: “And where do you think a Justice [Amy Coney] Barrett would take the court?”

In the segment on race, Wallace asked Trump two questions. First: “Why did you decide to . . . end racial sensitivity training?” Second: “And do you believe that there is systemic racism in this country, sir?”

The “preambles” to several of Wallace’s questions meant to provide background, were highly tendentious and included false information.

On healthcare, Wallace said Trump had “never come up with a comprehensive plan to replace Obamacare” and that his executive order to protect people with pre-existing conditions was “largely symbolic.” Missing from the preamble to his question about Trump’s healthcare plan was that the GOP had brought a plan to replace Obamacare to the floor of the Senate in July 2017, and that Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted to defeat it.

The preamble to his question to Biden on race started off with a calumny that even PolitiFact had debunked: “Vice President Biden, you say that President Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville three years ago, when he talked about very fine people on both sides, was what directly led you to launch this run for president . . . ”

Further, his question to Biden on the rioting (“Have you ever called the Democratic mayor of Portland or the Democratic governor of Oregon and said, ‘Hey, you got to stop this, bring in the National Guard, do whatever it takes?’”) didn’t assign responsibility for the rioting to the Harris-Biden campaign, even though his running mate urged supporters to donate to a group that bails out violent criminals, some of whom are also burn, loot, and murder rioters. Several members of Biden’s campaign staff contributed to the fund.

In contrast, Wallace’s question to Trump on the rioting tendentiously included the assumption that Trump somehow controls right-wing militias and white supremacist groups: “[A]re you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia group and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”

On man-made climate change, Wallace’s preamble assumes that the science is settled when this is not the case (“[I]f you believe in the science of climate change, why have you rolled back the Obama Clean Power Plan which limited carbon emissions and power plants?”). The issue of whether natural processes play a greater role in climate change than human activity remains unresolved—papers pro and con have had to be corrected or retracted—but the premise of Wallace’s question ignores this.

Several times, Wallace hectored Trump to agree to, or make, specific statements, but let Biden off the hook when he flatly refused to answer questions.

Wallace kept pressing Trump to answer his questions on taxes, on climate change, on white supremacists, and so on. For instance, even after Trump said he was willing to condemn white supremacists and tell them to stand down (Trump: “Sure, I’m willing to do that.”), Wallace wouldn’t take yes for an answer and continued to badger Trump: “Are you prepared specifically to do it?”; “But what are you saying?”; “Well, do it, sir.”

In contrast, when Biden would not answer his question about whether he would end the Senate filibuster and pack the Supreme Court, Wallace was missing in action, and it was left to Trump to press Biden on it. And when Biden told Trump to “shut up” and “stop yapping” Wallace did not ask for decorum.

During the next segment on COVID-19, when Biden ran through a litany of the “plan” he laid out in March, Wallace didn’t ask him to specify the items in his plan that hadn’t already been initiated or completed by the Trump Administration from late January until now. 

And in the segment on taxes, when Biden said he would eliminate the Trump tax cuts because Trump used the Obama Biden tax cuts to pay as little as he could, Wallace didn’t ask him to explain how eliminating the Trump tax cuts would’ve changed the amount Trump paid in taxes before he ran for president and assumed office.

When asked about the Green New Deal, when Biden made the claim that “the Green New Deal will pay for itself as we move forward”—which the proposal’s author, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), has never been able to explain—Wallace didn’t ask Biden how he thought that would work.

Several times, Wallace gave Biden cover when he lost his train of thought.

For instance, this exchange during the back-and-forth between the two men that started with the economics of the Green New Deal and veered off into demeaning comments each had purportedly made about the military:

Wallace: Mr. Vice President answer his final question.

Biden: The final question is, I can’t remember which of all his rantings [crosstalk]

Wallace: I’m having a little trouble myself, but . . . 

Biden: Yeah.

Wallace: And about the economy and about this question of what it’s going to cost.

Both stylistically and substantively, this was among the most chaotic, least informative debates I’ve seen. The Commission on Presidential Debates is reviewing the rules of engagement and will be negotiating changes with both campaigns to add “structure” to the format of the remaining debates “to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”

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About Ruth Papazian

Ruth Papazian is a Bronx-based health and medical writer, and a political junkie.

Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images